APTA, Memphis, TN

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5/22/2011

FTA Administrator Therese McMillan
Remarks at APTA
Memphis, TN

Thank you, Michael Scanlon, for that kind introduction.

I’m thrilled to join all of you at this year’s APTA Bus and Paratransit Conference.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood both send their very best wishes for a great conference and another great Roadeo.

Before we begin, I’d like to put in a quick plug for one of the open sessions taking place later this afternoon. My colleague, Anne Ferro, Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, will host a dialogue on safety and operations issues that affect you directly. This is the first time we’ve done this with the bus transit community. It’s a great opportunity for FTA to listen, and for you to learn more about Motor Carrier’s current initiatives and new and existing rulemakings. I hope you’ll attend.

Now, I want to begin by thanking Mayor Wharton for hosting us in Memphis this year – a city that has been through a lot, recently.

Everyone in the Obama Administration has watched with great concern as this city, and the Mississippi Delta, struggled in recent weeks to cope with record and near-record levels of flooding. And that’s on top of the disastrous and deadly tornadoes that tore through Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and elsewhere last month.

We are enormously proud and impressed by the courage and compassion that so many of you -- our transit agency partners -- have demonstrated as these disasters unfolded.

The Memphis Area Transit Authority, or MATA, is one of many agencies that took heroic action under dangerous conditions. Your decision to provide emergency transportation to help evacuate families in distress is not only commendable but a real reflection of your deep roots in the communities you serve every day.

And of course, you were not alone.

When tornadoes blasted Alabama, the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments sprang into action – deploying transport relief workers to wherever help was needed most; offering free rides on transit vehicles; and, remarkably, restoring normal service schedules within days of widespread power outages across three counties.

I have no doubt there are many other examples of transit agencies and officials going above and beyond the call of duty to help their communities.

To all of you, we say thank you.

And I’m proud to note that U.S. DOT and FTA staff have been on site, helping citizens and other responders deal with tornado recovery efforts.

As President Obama told flood victims here several days ago, “We’re there for you and we’re grateful for your resilience.”

In light of all that’s happened, you’ll be pleased to hear that the Administration believes an Emergency Relief Program should be established to provide the funds necessary to quickly restore transit operations in the wake of a disaster. This new program would fund the evacuation costs and temporary operating expenses of transit agencies during and after a disaster.

We think this is an important part of strengthening the safety net for transit agencies.

But let me be clear: This isn’t a program that can be stood up today or tomorrow. Rather, it’s one of several policy proposals under consideration as part of the broader reauthorization effort now under way in Congress.

I’ll say more about the Administration’s policy proposals in a few minutes.

First, I want to acknowledge that even those of you who have been spared big natural disasters face serious challenges of another sort – mainly economic.

Under the President’s leadership, our economy continues to grow its way out of the worst recession in over half a century.

But many of you still feel pain in the form of local budget cuts, service cutbacks, and delayed maintenance and repairs.

There are, however, a few bright spots.

For example, the President’s proposed budget for 2012 puts public transportation at the heart of the Administration’s plan to create jobs and improve the quality of life for millions of American workers and businesses.

His proposed budget seeks $22 billion for transit. That’s a proposed increase of $10 billion over our fiscal 2010 funding. At a time when budget cutbacks are being proposed across the board, this is a tremendous vote of confidence in our mission—and in the work all of you do so well.

In fact, this is arguably the most significant vote of confidence in public transportation ever made by a U.S. President.

This budget requests $10.7 billion to help transit agencies reduce their backlog of aging equipment and vehicles – a major priority for the Department. Of this amount, $7.5 billion is part of a proposed short-term, up-front $50 billion economic boost, which will ensure that our partners – state DOTs and transit agencies – realize the benefits of these investments in the early years of the next authorization.

While it’s much too soon to say what the final 2012 budget will look like, the President’s intentions are clear. I encourage all of you to reach out to your Congressional representatives and Senators and let them know how important this level of funding would be in your communities.

Now, before I say more about our priorities for next year’s budget and reauthorization, I’d like to share some very good news on the bus front.

In the next three weeks, FTA will issue request for proposals for $1.2 billion in new grants for the current fiscal year. The majority of these funds – over $970 million – is for bus and bus facilities alone.

Also included is roughly $100 million for Clean Fuels projects and another round of competitive TIGGER grants – both of which go a long way to help the transit industry reduce its dependence on oil, lower emissions, and put more clean, energy-efficient vehicles on the street.

Preliminary information on these funds was published in the Federal Register last Friday.

We look forward to working with you to bring these dollars into your communities to expand transit capacity, put new buses on the road, and improve the quality of service available to millions of riders daily.

With gas prices pushing hovering around $4 a gallon in many areas, I’m sure we all agree it’s more important than ever to provide affordable, reliable transportation choices in our communities. And in many parts of the country, that commitment begins with bus service.

I’d also like to highlight the growing number of innovative bus rapid transit projects competing for capital funding from FTA.

Our fiscal 2012 recommendations for New Starts and Small Starts capital transit projects include nearly $570 million for 10 new BRT and rail projects. The proposed BRT projects, in particular, have the potential to enhance transit capacity, improve mobility options for millions, and stimulate economic activity in Fresno, California; Fort Collins, Colorado; Jacksonville, Florida, El Paso, Texas; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and King County, Washington.

Bus and BRT service are at the heart of this Administration’s livability principles. Lining urban and suburban main streets with express bus stops expands housing choices for people of all incomes. And as we’ve seen in so many communities, BRT helps to revitalize downtowns and connect employers with workers.

Later this week, as part of this conference, FTA is holding a Small Starts workshop, where you can learn more about how your community can benefit from BRT investments funded our Small Starts program. I encourage you to attend, if you can.

And very importantly, expanded, reliable and safe bus service of all stripes is a highly effective way to support those who need transit options the most—low income families for whom car ownership is an economic burden; seniors and people with disabilities who’d rather live independently at home than in an institutional setting; young people who need access to school and recreational activities. Livability must be a goal for ALL members of our communities.

BRT service also go hand-in-hand with expanding access to paratransit – a lifeline for so many adults who depend on public transit to participate in the life of their communities.

So I’m pleased to announce today that FTA is releasing more than $1 million in Bus and Bus Facility grant funds to MATA for 10 new paratransit vans to replace aging buses.

For America’s wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, for our rapidly growing senior population, for adults battling chronic diseases like diabetes that make it difficult to drive – for all these people and their families, we must ensure that well-coordinated public transportation and mobility options are available.

That’s why FTA continues to work through the United We Ride program and the federal Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility to strengthen on-demand transportation and related mobility services.

For example, we’re closely watching two pilot programs we helped to fund in Aiken, South Carolina and Paducah, Kentucky, where trained mobility managers are working to make sure people get rides where and when they need them—while also improving the coordination of transportation with other needs, such as workforce training and food pantries.

While we’re on the subject, I want to commend APTA’s own efforts to promote mobility management, including the development of a mobility management strategic plan and a new APTA Committee on Mobility Management.

Clearly, we’re all equally excited about the potential of this approach to strengthen service on so many levels.

In addition to strengthening access and coordination, it’s equally important that we support a domestic industry capable of designing, engineering, and building the buses of the future – buses that are clean, efficient, easy to maintain, and above all, help reduce our dependence on oil.

Too many transit agencies, already strapped for cash, are scrambling to avoid cuts triggered by rapidly rising fuel costs.

We’ve seen this movie before—most recently in 2008—and we’re not eager to watch it again.

It’s high time we found a way to break this cycle.

Through our TIGGER program—as part of the Recovery Act—as well as our Clean Fuels program, and other sources, FTA has been making significant, game-changing investments to spur research, development, and testing of fuel-cell buses, hybrid buses, and other alternative power sources.

Earlier this month, President Obama visited the Allison Transmission plant in Indianapolis. This plant builds diesel-electric hybrid transmissions for transit buses. This is the wave of the future – and FTA is committed to partnering with you to help transit agencies make the transition to the next generation of buses made by Allison and other companies.

Here in Memphis, MATA is on the right track, with seven new hybrid-electric buses added recently to its growing fleet of alternatively powered vehicles, funded through the Recovery Act.

The Los Angeles County MTA has done a terrific job too -- putting a fleet of buses on the streets that’s 100 percent fueled by alternative energy.

We fully expect to see more and more bus fleets leaving gas pumps behind, installing more hybrid fueling stations, and reaping the long-term benefits of vehicles that get better mileage, have 25 percent longer brake life, and triple the running time between breakdowns.

Now, with all this talk about what’s shiny and new, I want you to know that we remain intensely focused on pursuing policies and programs that address some of the core fiscal and operating challenges you’re facing right now.

And that brings me back to the Administration’s policy proposals to inform Congress’ reauthorization effort. Reauthorization is an opportunity to proactively find new ways to do what we do – better and simpler.

Let me highlight some of the proposals that matter most to you.

First, we are reminded every day of the challenges faced by many transit agencies in meeting operating costs during these tough economic times. The Administration supports addressing these operating challenges in new ways. As Secretary LaHood has mentioned several times, there is no point in using federal dollars to buy brand spanking new buses for transit systems if you can’t afford to pay the drivers or buy the fuel to put those buses into service. Our proposal seeks flexibility for our principal Urbanized Area Formula Grant program for this purpose.

This assistance would be targeted and temporary—aimed at economically distressed urbanized areas with 200,000 or more in population, and phased out over three years. Even in a year when the Recovery Act provided an 80 percent boost in federal funding for public transit, we still saw service reductions to the public because of downturns in state and local revenues. We need to get creative to address this issue.

Second, the Administration supports streamlining and consolidating core programs to improve efficiency and become even more responsive to local transportation priorities. This would mean transforming the New Starts and Small Starts programs into more streamlined processes for funding the construction of new fixed-guideway projects and extensions to existing projects, including bus rapid transit and rail. The goal is to create more jobs quickly, complete projects faster, and provide riders real transportation options sooner rather than later.

Additionally, we recognize that many FTA recipients – especially small and rural transit operators – are burdened by the need to administer three separate programs for older adults, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals. So we propose merging three separate programs serving these populations. This would mean one consolidated grant program in place of the free-standing Job Access and Reverse Commute, New Freedom, and programs for elderly and disabled patrons. We think this would be a big step forward in helping you to fill gaps in service in both urban and rural communities, without imposing a huge burden on your time and resources.

Third, we support a groundbreaking commitment to maintain our transit systems in a state of good repair.

The Administration supports a new program that would replace our existing fixed guideway modernization and discretionary bus programs with formula grants that would be provided to transit agencies specifically to improve existing capital assets.

Simply put, this would inject new dollars directly into your systems to restore and replace core assets. We recommend giving priority to transit agencies with the most pressing capital investment needs. And above all, we’re seeking equitable treatment for rail and bus systems.

You’ll have more opportunities to learn about the Administration’s policy proposals in the weeks and months ahead.

Secretary LaHood, and all of us at FTA, are confident that as this process evolves, we’ll have the chance to help make history by boosting our economy, creating jobs, and rebuilding our infrastructure for the 21st century — a win, win, win for all of us.

Clearly, we face challenges on the way to making our vision a reality. But, in the past, transportation policy was one area where members of both parties – Democrats and Republicans – joined together in the common good.

We are hopeful that even in this age of austerity, our nation will continue to make meaningful investments in public transportation to keep us competitive and moving forward.

In closing, I’d like to return to my opening observations:

Here in Memphis and up and down the Mississippi, you faced a mighty, angry river. You met her challenge head on with courage and ingenuity, bonding with your neighbors to do whatever needs to be done, to respond and rebuild.

That’s what we do in this country, and it is that spirit that we must harness to reinvest in this nation’s transportation system, and make it the envy of the world once again.

Thank you.

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