June 28, 2006 - From the June, 2006 issue

APTA President Millar Lauds National Investments in Public Transit; Encourages L.A. to Do More

Los Angeles spent decades debating the merits of public transit, but now the consensus has swung firmly in favor of investing in transit, and even the once-wary Westside is getting in on the game. At last month's Westside Transportation Summit, sponsored by the Westside Council of Governments, local civic leaders came together to discuss a vision of transportation for the sub-region. At the summit, Bill Millar, president of the American Public Transit Association, a national advocacy group, discussed the unprecedented increase in transit investment nationwide and exhorted L.A.'s leaders to unite and compete for scarce funding.

Bill Millar

There are some very good trends going on in America as far as public transportation-some long-term, some short-term. Last year was another record year for transit ridership in the country. Americans boarded public transit over 9.7 billion times. You have to go back to the 1950s to find another year when they used public transit so heavily. Ridership was up about 1.3 percent or so-not enormous numbers, but good steady growth compared against vehicle miles traveled on our highway system, which was only up about one tenth of a percent last year. So I guess if you are a real transit advocate you say we grew 14 times faster than the highways! But still the vast amount of travel is on our highway network.

Rail transit is moving forward. You would expect that-there have been major investments in many communities, including Los Angeles, in rail transit. We've seen, over the last 10 years, a shift of about 35 percent of those trips being on rail to now over 38 percent of those trips being on rail.

Of course the run-up in gas prices, first last fall after the hurricanes, saw an immediate increase in ridership. Many communities, including this one, have seen double-digit increase of ridership. However, in late November and December when gas fell back to more reasonable prices-around $2.75 or $2.60-we did see some decline in ridership. But many people that came to transit because of the high gas prices found it served their needs for some, if not all, of their trips. If you think about the last ten years, transit ridership, picture a basketball player bouncing a ball while walking upstairs. The highs are a little higher each time, and the lows not as low as they used to be-that is what's going on with transit ridership across the country.

We've begun to make the news; some of you may have seen the front page of USA Today a week ago, where the whole issue of Americans turning to transit was well covered. Here at the MTA, I understand from what Roger Snoble has had to say, that you've seen your bus ridership growing 7 to 8 percent and your rail ridership-10, 11, 12 percent. As Supervisor Yaroslavsky and many others have pointed out, if you improve the quality of service, speed up that trip, and make options available, people will take them.

Will this continue in the future? All of us were very pleased last summer when the Congress and the president came to agreement on something called SAFETEA-LU. I won't even try to repeat the exact title of that, but it is the piece of legislation that lays out both highway and transit policy funding at the federal level for the next several years. And we're all very vocal that with SAFETEA-LU in place we would be able to plan and improve both highway travel and transit travel around the country as appropriate. That is in fact what is happening. So, that has made the policy at the federal level, and now it is up to the states and municipalities to decide what to do.

Certainly, the action by your state Legislature (on May 5) is another step there; making sure the voters agree with that in November is your next truly big step. The Transportation Research Board that is part of the National Academy of Sciences and does research on all aspects of transportation commissioned a Harris Poll last January asking Americans what they thought of their transportation system.

I thought the interesting set of the questions asked what people want more of. They asked about freight, they asked about passenger. On the freight side, 63 percent said they want more freight to go by rail. Only 24 percent wanted more freight to go on the freeways by truck. On the passenger side, they found a similar picture. When asked what they wanted more of, 44 percent of the answers said they want more commuter rail in our mix. Thirty-five percent said they wanted inter-city rail. Only 11 percent of people said they wanted more emphasis on the automobile. I don't think we ought to interpret this as saying that people are going to suddenly give up the automobile. But it does say that people get it. They want choices and they want other opportunities.

Polls are polls, and we all have our opinions about polls, but they key is what people do in the voting booth. My association has been tracking local initiatives for transit investment over the last eight or nine years. When we started doing this we found around the country that we lost about as often as we won when people actually had vote to raise their taxes or to continue a tax that was set to expire to support public transit. It was about a 50-50 proposition.

Over the last four years that has changed rather dramatically. Last year we won 84 percent of the ballot initiatives. The year before it was 80 percent, and the year before that it was over 75 percent. I think there is a trend here. We are at a critical point and the high gas prices are simply one more opportunity to build upon that innate feeling that seems present among the electorate.

And it is going on around the country. As I travel around the country, I find I can talk about transit in places where I almost got thrown off the stage ten years ago. I was recently the luncheon speaker at a meeting I never thought I'd see in Phoenix, Arizona, where the whole topic was commuter rail. When I first went to Phoenix in this capacity about eight years ago, you couldn't say the word rail in many areas. In fact, one of the state senators who adamantly opposed the light rail system in Phoenix originally is now the leading advocate for commuter rail in that community.


I tell you that story for two reasons. One, to reinforce the notion that things are changing even in places that we might not think they are changing, and, two, to suggest that you have a lot of competition for the federal dollars that are paying for rail. Commuter rail projects in Minneapolis; Salt Lake City; Portland, Oregon; Charlotte, North Carolina; Raleigh, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Austin, Texas; Atlanta; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh; Orlando; and the list goes on and on-and that is just commuter rail. We could be listing another 80 or so projects of other types of rail that are in advanced stages of planning or construction.

Now, most of these projects have pretty good numbers. Your projects are going to have good numbers. What do I mean by that? Good cost effectiveness numbers; they are needed, and Congress increased the amount of money for public transportation but nowhere near commensurate with the increase in investment. Our friends at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials-the organization of state DOT secretaries-estimate that we should be investing over $43 billion a year in public transit. There is an enormous need and an increasing amount of money, but also a huge gap between what is needed and what is available. And that is the importance of what your Legislature did. They set you up to take advantage and to improve the position of California vis-à-vis all the other activities around the country.

But there is a very, very long federal planning process; I know you've been through it before in this community, and I wish I could say to you that it is much easier than last time you went through it. It is not. But you need to focus on some of the things can hurt the process. One, you need to be together. You cannot have different groups running off different ways on different projects. The work that your MTA board that your other political officials are doing to get a common vision and a common set of priorities here is absolutely essential.

Just to pick one other community that has a very large and complex situation such as yours: New York City. There are many, many projects in New York City. They could easily spend the entire federal share, but through a lot of hard work they've come down to two priorities for the whole metro region of 16 million people. You will need to do the same and keep a laser focus on those priorities.

The second big thing is making sure that you have the local match. Every federal dollar comes with a requirement of a local match. Unfortunately, despite what the law says, which is that the federal government should give you four dollars for every one dollar you put up, in fact it is a one-for- one deal. Having your bond issue, having your act together, having agreement, being willing to commit those local funds, moves you further up the line. With these things in place, a unified vision of what you want and cash in the bank should allow your legislative delegation to work on your behalf successfully.

Certainly helping your delegation understand that this is about investment, and it's very important. We're talking about big cost today, but they are going to bring benefits back to this community for 100 years or more. There are things in your community that you revere, that due to their expense were considered controversial at the time of construction, but way back then they were so inexpensive. Project yourself ahead 50 years from now. The Wilshire Corridor, the Expedition Corridor may seem like a lot of money, but there will be someone sitting in these chairs 50 years from now, long after those projects have been are built and operating, saying, "Wow. Who had the foresight to do this way back at the beginning of the millennium when it was so cheap?"

And that is really the attitude that you need to remind people about. These are investments over a long period of time. It's not just about the people that are on the trains or the buses, it's about what it does for the community and the opportunity it makes for everyone over a long period of time.

You've got a lot of work cut out for you, but it is not an impossible task. You have proven that in this community you can come together. I am suggesting to you based on what I see around the country, the competition is tougher than ever, but you will need good projects, and good numbers on your projects. You will need your matching funds available, and those are all for the good, but it is a long way from here, and there will be many more meetings to pull all that together.


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