Murray: Public Transit Professionals Must ‘Speak with One Voice’

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) called on public transportation professionals to “speak with one voice on the role of public transit in rebuilding the U.S. economy” when she addressed the Oct. 1 Opening General Session of the 2012 APTA Annual Meeting in Seattle.

“If we are going to build livable communities, we must make a commitment to transit development,” Murray said, citing efforts in the Puget Sound region that include King County Metro Transit’s new Rapid Ride service, Sound Transit’s light rail connection to SeaTac International Airport, and Washington State Ferries. “We have these investments,” she explained, “because the region committed to a smart growth policy based on public transportation.”

APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy offered welcoming remarks at the opening session. Other participants were outgoing APTA Chair Gary C. Thomas and incoming Chair Flora M. Castillo; King County Executive Dow Constantine; Kevin Desmond, general manager of King County Metro Transit, host system for the meeting; FTA Administrator Peter M. Rogoff; Alan S. Boyd, the first secretary of DOT; and Thomas R. Waldron, representing AECOM, which sponsored the session.

In his remarks, Rogoff went into detail about the increasing importance of public transportation to DOT operations. He called the recently passed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) act a vindication of the Obama Administration’s goals for FTA, such as reducing dependence on foreign oil, putting people back to work, and allowing people to keep more of their paycheck rather than facing rising gasoline prices.

“President Obama may have taken more trips on public transit than all other modern presidents put together,” Rogoff said in emphasizing the president’s support for the sector. “Transit has secured a seat at the table.”

He noted that more than one-third of federal Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery grants have gone to public transportation projects; that FTA approved a record number of Full Funding Grant Agreements last year and is on track to beat that number this year; and that MAP-21 includes the first safety measures under FTA jurisdiction in the agency’s history.

Castillo, the first Latina to serve as APTA chair, gave her personal testimony to the importance of public transportation. Castillo moved to the U.S. with her family from El Salvador when she was 15, and her mother traveled to work on “four buses and two subways per week, from New York to New Jersey.”

“I know firsthand the value of public transportation and how important it is to those who need it most,” she said. “And this is why I have such passion for the vulnerable communities and cherish the chance to give these communities a voice for their issues.”

During the session, Castillo unveiled the theme for her term as chair: “It’s All About the People!” She explained: “Our customers; the employees who make our systems run; our partners—in both the public and private sectors—who help make our industry move…I plan to focus my year as chair on efforts that support not just our groups of stakeholders, but the people in each of those groups.”

Her other emphases during the year will include workforce development—the importance of investing in human capital; reaching out to nontraditional potential partners such as health-related organizations and insurance companies; and making plans for the surface transportation authorization bill that will follow MAP-21 when it expires in 2014.

Castillo has served 13 years on the New Jersey Transit Corporation Board of Directors, an experience she called “extraordinary” in the way it has given her exposure to all facets of public transportation.

The more than 1,800 APTA members and guests in attendance rose to their feet to welcome Boyd, who served as DOT secretary from 1967-1969. He stressed the importance of building public transportation at the same time as other utilities such as water, sewer, electricity, and cable rather than the more difficult and expensive choice of doing it later: “It’s time the public understood that public transportation should go along with other improvements instead of being an afterthought.”

Boyd also noted “the growth of older and older U.S. populations” who are unable to get or keep driver’s licenses, “so either they travel by public transportation or they stay locked in place.”

Thomas presented an overview of his year’s experiences. “We are part of a wonderful industry and a strong association. I urge you not to take that for granted,” he said. “Stay engaged, and let’s never forget to support one another, speaking with one voice.”

He noted that his year as chair began with the EXPO in New Orleans, “showcasing the best in public transportation services and products, and this summer we hosted the UIC World Congress on High-Speed Rail for the first time in the United States.”

Melaniphy cited “the power and the promise” of public transportation professionals in their response to a difficult economy and the ongoing lack of a long-term authorization bill. “We were tested…and because of you, we passed these tests,” he said.

He listed four qualities—investment, imagination, leadership, and excellence—that drive the public transit industry. For example, at a time of congressional gridlock, MAP-21 passed with increases in the federal transit program, and U.S. ridership rose for the sixth consecutive quarter, totaling more than 2.7 billion trips in the second quarter of 2012.

“This is a great indicator for our country,” he said of the ridership numbers. “Public transportation is increasing as the economy rebounds. People use public transportation to get to work and it puts America back to work.”

He also listed some highlights of the past year, including APTA’s recognition by National Journal as having one of the 15 most influential brands in Washington, DC, and its creation of a new initiative to help mid-level managers gain skills that will help them lead the industry.

Desmond announced that King County Metro’s introduction of new service, including two Rapid Ride Bus Rapid Transit routes, which coincided with the APTA Annual Meeting. Forty percent of commuters into downtown Seattle use public transit, he said, and the agency partners with a business community that supports its efforts.

“Public transit has never been so relevant,” said Waldron. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re likely to be on the menu.”