Center For Urban Transportation Research - Tampa, FL


09-29-08


REMARKS FOR
SHERRY LITTLE
DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR
FEDERAL TRANSIT ADMINISTRATION

CENTER FOR URBAN TRANSPORTATION RESEARCH TAMPA, FLORIDA
SEPTEMBER 29, 2008

On behalf of President Bush and Transportation Secretary Peters, I am delighted to be here with members of FTA’s outstanding research team, to offer a federal perspective on our transportation successes and challenges.

I want to congratulate CUTR and its faculty for their outstanding work in developing innovative solutions to real-world transportation challenges.

This means a great deal to me. . .   When I was serving on the Senate Banking Committee, I was a strong supporter of CUTR because I knew the research mission was so important.

But that’s not the whole story. Back in 2003, Alisdair Cain invited me to go with NBRTI to England to look at BRT projects.

That trip convinced me that we needed a federal program in the U.S. to fund more BRT here at home. . . So when I was working on the SAFETEA legislation, I had a “hot line” to Gary Brosch, CUTR’s founding director, so we could brainstorm.

The result was FTA’s Small Starts program, which funds smaller, non-fixed guideway projects. . . It’s been very successful so far. . . 6 of the 9 Small Starts programs we’re funding in fiscal 2009 are for new or expanding BRT projects around the country. ..

Today, FTA and NBRTI are involved in a number of worthy projects together.

The main one I want to mention is our trade delegation to India last year, where we signed a historic Memorandum of Cooperation between our countries, to encourage an exchange of information and technology on public transportation projects.

We got a first-hand look at India’s ambitious plans for improving urban transportation infrastructure  -- and BRT is a big part of it. In fact, 12 cities in India are planning BRT systems, and it’s very encouraging to know that CUTR is closely studying these projects  -- and other transit projects around the world, in Bogota, Columbia; Ecuador; Japan; and soon, China.

We need a robust exchange of information about what transit solutions work best in different transit environments. . . and we all have much to learn from each other.

I’m sure NBRTI will bring back new insights from the latest trip to India that our Administrator, Jim Simpson, took this month.

I also want to note some of our domestic collaborations. Specifically, DOT and FTA are benefiting from the work that CUTR and NBRTI are doing to support our Urban Partnership Agreements in several major urban areas  --  where highway improvements, integrated transit systems, and new demand management strategies promise to reduce congestion and improve mobility for their regions.

I know that NBTRI is working here in Florida to evaluate BRT service for one of these projects along the I-95 Corridor in the Miami-Dade area.  This is a great project and we’re glad to have you involved.

Now, I want y’all want to know what’s going on at the federal level.

First and foremost, we face significant funding challenges for transportation  --  and this is going to affect the choices and investments we make in our transportation infrastructure in the coming years.

The Highway Trust Fund is our principal mechanism today for federally funding for highway and transit projects  --  and it’s funded largely through gas taxes.

As you many know, the Highway portion of the Trust Fund is spending more than it’s taking in. . . Earlier this month, Congress agreed to an $8 billion bail-out, but it’s only a stop-gap measure, not a solution.

We’re dealing with a real paradox here.  As gas prices rise, people drive less, which in turn reduces tax revenues for federal transportation projects.

Meanwhile, transit ridership is at its highest level in 50 years  --  but many transit agencies are having to cut costs and in some cases, service, because they do not have the resources to meet the surge in demand.

Part of the issue here is that the transit industry has not had the capital to maintain critical assets in a state of good repair – from rail cars and stations to buses and maintenance depots.

In fact, FTA’s analysis shows that the 15 largest heavy rail agencies face a $30 billion backlog for much-needed repairs and replacement. . .  And an additional $7 billion is needed annually over the next 20 years to achieve a state of good repair for all transit systems.

This problem is only going to get worse as ridership increases – putting more strain on many aging transit systems.

So. . .  Where will the money come from to address these critical needs? That’s the big question we’re facing now.

There’s an old saying at the Pentagon:

“A vision without resources is a hallucination.”

Congress is so concerned about this, they’ve asked FTA to issue a report on transit operators’ recapitalization plans. We’re releasing that report later this year.

Incidentally, the work that CUTR does can make a real difference here  -- by coming up with technologies and other solutions that extend the life of transit assets and improve operating efficiency, for example. . . We’re counting on y’all!

Now, on top of all this, the cost to expand our public transportation infrastructure has been soaring, as the cost of steel, aluminum, concrete and other materials rise – driven by global demand.

But I don’t want y’all to think there’s nothing but bad news coming out of Washington. . .

In fact, the FTA has done an excellent job of funding transit projects all over the country – large and small, rural and urban  -- that truly make a difference in people’s lives.

FTA’s commitment authority for New Starts projects  -- our major capital investment program for transit  -- is fully leveraged, and that’s good news. . .

We’ve got 15 Full Funding Grant Agreements for capital transit projects under way or waiting in the wings. . . which means we have about $600 million left to invest from our $10 billion budget  --  and we will ultimately invest all those funds in worthy bus and rail
projects.

But in truth, we must find a new financing paradigm for public transportation. . .

That’s why we’re advocating several reforms that we hope will be considered in the new authorizing legislation for federal surface transportation programs, which Congress will take up within the next year.

First. . .  We need to involve the private sector in financing,  building, operating, and maintaining capital transit projects. Public-private partnerships are the wave of the future. . . they’re beginning to catch on in the transit industry. . .and we’re going to see a lot more of them in the future. . .

Done right, PPPs inject capital, efficiency, and share risks that public sponsors of major transit projects cannot always handle alone. . . .

FTA has cosponsored several PPP workshops bringing public and private organizations together  -- and there’s real excitement about this on both sides.

We also need to introduce demand-management strategies that fight congestion by asking drivers to pay more to use roads when they’re the busiest, recognizing the high price Americans are paying today for congestion in terms of lost time, wasted fuel and the drain on the U.S. economy.

That’s why we’re encouraging high-speed tolling and congestion pricing on the busiest corridors. These have been controversial  --  but they also hold promise, by encouraging drivers to avoid roads at peak times, and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenues for local, multimodal transportation projects. . .

It’s all about giving the money back to the folks who will benefit most.

Second. . . We must streamline federal transportation programs – giving more decision-making to states and local governments, to
decide which kinds of transportation projects to fund  -- whether highway, bus, rail, or something else. . .

We should make it easier for state and local officials to make investments based on what works – and what gets people where they need to be.

Third. . . We must work to eliminate big congressional earmarks for transportation projects because they siphon away discretionary funds that might be put to better use by local project sponsors.

Fourth. . .  We should subject all federally funded projects to a strong cost-benefit analysis, to make sure we’re investing in the projects with the most promising outcomes.

And finally. . . We need to encourage and reward innovation everywhere. . . To provide incentives to the transit industry and other stakeholders so they’re rewarded for taking on risks. . . for creative financing deals. . . and for introducing innovative technologies. . . .

The next President and the next Congress will face many challenges related to transportation and our national infrastructure. . .

Whatever happens, it will be critical for our leaders to begin weaning the U.S. off of the gas tax – and away from our dependence on 700 billion dollars' worth of imported oil each year.

Now more than ever, we need strong, innovative federal leadership to make this a reality.

We need leaders willing to make tough and courageous decisions about what it will really take to build and sustain a world-class transportation infrastructure, to keep our economy moving.

We need to restore faith in our government's ability to foster a vision for our future  -- and to recognize that we are all going to sink or swim together.

Above all, our federal government ought to be an effective champion for a revitalized transportation infrastructure in this country.

Working together, I know we can reach our goals.

I want to leave you with this thought from the futurist, Alvin Toffler – which I think is especially appropriate for the research community:
“The responsibility for change…lies with us. We must begin with ourselves, teaching ourselves not to close our minds prematurely to the novel, the surprising, the seemingly radical. This means fighting off the idea-assassins who rush forward to kill any new suggestion on grounds of its impracticality, while defending whatever now exists as practical….” 

I know that at CUTR, there is never a shortage of new ideas – and the courage to explore them in the interests of making public transportation better for all Americans.

Thank you.