COMTO Conference - Plenary Session, Cleveland, OH


07-20-04

Jennifer L. Dorn
Administrator
Federal Transit Administration

COMTO Conference, Plenary Session
Cleveland, Ohio
July 20, 2004

Thank you for that kind introduction.  I’m always so impressed by the Cleveland Regional Transit Authority and the Cleveland, itself -- a city with multiple halls of fame…for rock and roll and for football.  It’s not often that I have to compete with Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and Joe Namath all at the same time, but I’ll do my best… and wait for the Public Transit Hall of Fame to open!

The Transit Industry and Minority Leadership…Progress and a New Challenge

This is the third time I’ve addressed COMTO, but this year it is a particular honor for it is the fortieth anniversary year of the Civil Rights Act.  After decades of struggle, the Civil Rights Act sent a clear, unequivocal wake up call to employers that this is, indeed, a land of equal opportunity in which every person can pursue the American dream.  That message is as urgent, as relevant, and as deeply compelling today as it was in 1964.

It is hard for me to believe that, when I was a teenager about to enter the summer workforce in 1964, it was still legal to make hiring decisions openly based on race, or to have “males only” and “females only” want ads.  Today women lead the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Federal Motor Carrier Administration; an Asian American is our Secretary of Transportation; and minorities and women serve in State and local transportation leadership positions throughout the country. 

In 2001, the American Public Transportation Association conducted a diversity study of our industry.  It found that non-white employees held a significant portion of the higher positions, at 39 percent of management, 44 percent of professionals, and 40 percent of technical groups… although women still had a way to go in all three of these categories.

APTA concluded that the transit industry is ahead of the national averages in its number of minority workers across the occupational spectrum, and including leadership roles.  The progress we have made as an industry – and as a nation -- can be traced to many of the pioneers in this room.

But there is more work to be done.  At your conference this week, you will be asking tough questions of our industry, and one of the most important is, how can we replenish the ranks of transit leaders?  As much as we might like to think otherwise, we will not be here forever.  We need to keep the momentum toward a diverse workforce rolling.  We need to cultivate and tap the next generation of talent -- a talent pool that reflects the formidable diversity and strength of minority communities in this country—who will be the majority of our population within a matter of years.

Creating Opportunity

This audience certainly knows well of Secretary Mineta’s tireless and enduring commitment to civil rights and equal opportunity.  Earlier this year he noted that barriers of race, or sex, or ethnicity “must be overcome” if the full potential of this Nation to create jobs and economic growth is going to be realized.  The “dream of building something that did not exist before” he said, fuels the American dream.  And it most certainly fuels our industry, which is dedicated to growth and opportunity.

President Bush is committed to the principles of civil rights and the promise of small businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit. 
This Administration laid the foundation for the creation of 1.4 million new jobs since last August, with new tax incentives, an increase in the number and amount of loans to small businesses owned by minorities, and the transformation of the Small Business Administration into a more customer-focused service-oriented agency.

And today I want to talk about three other important ways that we in FTA are working to create, in the transit industry, real opportunities, and real networks for advancement.  The first FTA initiative focuses on the talented young people in universities and colleges who might otherwise never consider a career in public transit.

The Inside Track

We recognize that finding the next generation of minority leaders in the transit industry begins before the job market.  We want to foster an interest in the transit industry while students are still in college.  And we want to provide tangible, hands-on experience with the rich and varied professional pathways that transit provides.

I remember vividly the influence that internships in the Connecticut State Legislature, in the university’s IPS, and one for the Mayor of New Haven had on me as a college student.  I had the energy and the desire to make a contribution, but those internships helped to funnel that energy into channels that set me on the course of a lifelong career in public service.   We can do the same thing for prospective transit leaders in the minority communities. 

Although many of us – myself included – have become “transit geeks,” I suspect that the idea of becoming a transit professional still does not carry quite the same attraction for most young people as becoming a lawyer, an athlete or an actor!   But we are working hard to change that image!!

Working with COMTO, FTA has created the “Inside Track” program to make transit a magnet for the best and the brightest minority talent of the next generation.  Inside Track matches talented young minority students looking for a career, with an industry that is looking for talented young minority students. 

This is not just another internship program.  It brings together all of the elements critical to success… a partnership among FTA, transit agencies, dedicated transit professionals based in our communities, and universities and colleges. 

Inside Track participants will gain real life work experience on exciting New Starts projects – with either a private firm or the local transit agency.  They will be assisted by universities and colleges that have a stake in their success.  They will benefit from mentoring relationships with transit professionals who are members of COMTO, and who are eager for these students to succeed.  And -- an often-overlooked, but a very important component for struggling college students – they will get paid for the work they do.   We believe that, through these partnerships, we can interest some of our Nation’s very best minority talent in careers in the transit industry.

I have to tell you, this project was not easy to design.  COMTO and FTA both wanted to get it right.  Julie Cunningham and I both spent many long hours to ensure that the project would meet our goals.  We knew that we would maximize the benefits to the participants and the industry if we could find a nexus of an exciting New Starts project, a successful transit agency, a thriving local COMTO chapter, and a historically black college or university equipped to support the program.   And we did.

I’m delighted that we have found our pilot site in Baltimore, Maryland, where COMTO is collaborating with the highly esteemed, historically Black Morgan State University.  Now that the program is underway, I know that COMTO will keep the ball rolling. 

I believe that Inside Track can put our industry ahead of the curve.  The entire industry -- both the public and private sectors -- needs to cultivate minority talent.  We need professionals who are fluent in the private sector and the local and Federal programs, and who can move between those worlds with ease and confidence.  Young professionals today are looking for dynamic and challenging careers.  This industry can provide those opportunities – and we are committed to proving it. 

DBE program: Real Opportunities Never Emerge from Fraud

The second program I want to talk about today is the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program – or DBE program, for short.  Our work in building a dynamic transportation industry doesn’t end once we attract new talent to the field.

Since 1983, the DBE Program has sought to expand opportunities for minority firms to participate in Federal contracting.  Small businesses are the engine of our economy – and the DBE program is a critical component of the President’s effort to create new jobs and economic growth in America. 

 Unfortunately, this year the DOT Inspector General identified fraud and abuse in the DBE program as one of the top ten management challenges facing the Department of Transportation.  The IG is currently investigating no fewer than 40 DBE fraud schemes, in 19 states.  Over the last five years, DBE investigations by the Inspector General have resulted in 29 convictions.  One common scheme is for prime contractors to conspire with DBE firms to fraudulently meet DBE participation criteria in order to win contracts. 
In these cases, the DBEs either do not perform the work or yield total control of the project to the prime contractors – acting as a “front” for firms that would not otherwise qualify to receive the contract.

DBE fraud and abuse undermines the integrity of the program.  Almost by definition, real opportunities never come out of fraud.  These schemes turn potential business partnerships into partnerships in crime.  And the minority firms who participate in them trade long-term business opportunities and growth, for illegal short-term gains.  Another firm gets the work, the experience and connections -- and the minority firm gets the short-end of the stick. 

The President’s vision for creating real opportunities for minorities in transportation is about creating new leaders and long-term gains – strengthening the industry and building our communities.  Achieving this requires careful stewardship of the DBE program to prevent fraud that undermines the legitimate efforts of minority firms to build a reputation and presence in the industry.  The bottom line is that “fronts” are not “opportunities,” and they jeopardize our broader mission of opportunity.

In response to the IG report, FTA is taking several important steps.  We will offer additional DBE courses through the National Transit Institute, including a new Fraud Detection and Prevention module that was developed in concert with the IG. 

We are also incorporating new areas of inquiry into our regular oversight programs, and we will conduct in-depth spot reviews of DBE compliance.  At the same time, we are offering enhanced technical assistance to transit agencies who want to take full advantage of the opportunities that the DBE program provides.  

Finally, I have asked every transit agency to submit a letter within 90 days verifying that they have appropriate DBE certification files for every firm that is serving as a DBE prime or subcontractor.  I’ve asked agencies to conduct those certifications within 60 days if they have not been documented. 

Trust me when I say that the last thing we want to do at FTA is create more administrative work, but it is vital that we ensure the integrity of the DBE program.  We live in a time of increased scrutiny and heightened attention to the careful stewardship of taxpayer dollars.  Americans demand accountability not only from government, but from industry, as well.   So this is truly an industry-wide responsibility, and I was pleased to note that there will be several sessions at this conference on compliance with DBE requirements and dealing with DBE certification.  I hope that each of you will make time in your conference schedule to attend.

Mentor Protégé: Navigating the Federal Marketplace

The third and final program I want to mention to you today is FTA’s new Mentor-Protégé program in the New Starts oversight program.  In 2002, FTA convened a forum for small and women-owned businesses, and at that time I promised to create more opportunities for these firms.  This goal became both personal and professional for me.
 
The following year, we launched the Mentor-Protégé program which, like Inside Track, formalizes the hands-on, mentoring experience – but at a business/company level.   The Mentor-Protégé program pairs a first-rate mentor with a promising, ambitious, small, disadvantaged firm that is eager to compete in the Federal contracting marketplace and learn the ropes from a more experienced firm.  The Mentor-Protégé program taps into the power of networks and connections — but it brings new faces into the network, and builds new kinds of connections for small, minority-owned businesses.

Please join me in congratulating our first Mentor-Protégé pair:  Our mentor firm, the minority-owned, Delon Hampton, with over 30 years of experience; and our protégé firm, the woman-owned Interactive Elements Incorporated.  Under the experienced, steady hand of Delon Hampton, IEI has just gotten its first task order to oversee the Triangle Transit Authority’s commuter rail project in Raleigh, North Carolina, an $840 million dollar New Starts project.   I know that Raleigh will be in great hands.

United We Ride: Creating Opportunities for Professionals and Customers

I’ve talked about partnerships today.  And I hope you will indulge me for just a few minutes more, so that I can tell you about one more partnership that I feel passionate about. 

 Last February, President Bush signed an Executive Order that formalizes a critical partnership among Federal agencies.  It is a partnership that brings together every Federal agency with a stake in improving transportation for the millions of Americans with disabilities, our growing older adult population, and people with low incomes.  With Secretary Mineta in the lead, the President told us to work together to reduce statutory and regulatory barriers, enhance coordination, and improve the delivery of cost-effective transportation services to these underserved populations.

And that’s what our new initiative, United We Ride, is all about. United We Ride is a five-part initiative, launched this year, that encourages human service transportation providers to work together, coordinate their services, and pool their resources to increase mobility in our communities.   There are 62 Federal programs with eligibility to fund transportation services, and from a business perspective, that’s quite a market niche!

Without coordination and collaboration, communities typically experience redundancies, gaps, and overlaps in transit service. They might have several vans running the same route each day—one providing service for seniors to a senior center, and another providing service for people with disabilities to a job training site in the same building.  United We Ride helps human service and transportation providers think about pooling resources and consolidating these services.  That will benefit customers – and benefit of the transit industry, as well. 
With coordination, communities can provide more transportation services, with less overlap and lower per-trip costs. 

But it is not easy to build a coordinated transportation system.  That’s why United We Ride offers some important tools to help.  It includes a framework for action and self-assessment tool, technical assistance resources, and recognition for States that exemplify effective coordination.

The benefits for our customers — low-income riders, people with disabilities, and the elderly — are clear:  They get more service.  But United We Ride makes good business sense, as well, by opening up opportunities for new partnerships and services.  United We Ride will help the transit industry reach its potential, just as it helps our customers reach theirs.

There is power in partnership, especially when budgets are tight and funds scarce.  We already have coordination success stories, local examples of how new networks and collaborations have yielded “win-win” gains for the transit industry and professionals alike.

In Kentucky, the governor combined funds from several state-administered human service transportation programs into a single fund, and established regional transportation brokers.  The cost per ride was reduced by almost 20 percent, while the number of rides was increased substantially.

In Miami, coordinating Medicaid transportation with public transportation resulted in a win-win situation for the local Medicaid agency, the transit providers and Medicaid customers.  By issuing transit passes to allow Medicaid customers to use less-expensive fixed route transit instead of more expensive paratransit or taxi trips, the Medicaid agency saves $700,000 per month — almost $8 million a year – even though only 1 percent of the Medicaid clients use the new service.  This strategy not only saves money, it helps Medicaid clients who can use their transit passes not only for medical trips, but for other trips in the community, as well.  

And in Riverside County, just east of Los Angeles, the Transportation Reimbursement and Information Project (TRIP) complements public transportation by reimbursing volunteers to transport individuals where no public transportation service exists. All told, these services would cost at least $1.5 million more than those provided by TRIP.

Concluding Thoughts: Build New Networks and New Opportunities

If there is one overriding message in all of these initiatives, it is that this Administration has confidence that customers, transit providers, and communities all benefit when we can foster new energy, new networks, and new connections in the transit industry.   These networks are really about stoking the entrepreneurial spirit in the transit industry, and learning to see—and seize—new opportunities … by talking and collaborating with colleagues that you haven’t worked with before, by partnering with young talented firms through the federal contract marketplace, and by fostering the best and brightest talent in the next generation of transit professionals.

So I’d like to thank all of you here not only for your professional contributions over the past year, but also for your dedication to building opportunity for the next generation of transit professionals and entrepreneurs.  You are helping to put the American dream within reach of the talented individuals who will become the leaders of tomorrow.  And you are making an important investment in the future of our industry and our Nation.  Thank you so much.