Obama’s Engaged With Transit More in 9 Months than Bush Did in 8 Years
The Obama administration has brought both good news and bad news to transit riders. But here's a positive sign you haven't heard before, straight from Federal Transit Administration (FTA) chief Peter Rogoff: In the nine months of the new presidency, the FTA has fielded more requests for information "directly from the White House" than in the entire eight years of the Bush administration.
Rogoff, formerly a veteran aide to the Senate Appropriations Committee, dropped that intriguing fact and several others in a speech yesterday at the American Public Transportation Association's annual meeting in Orlando.
In fact, the FTA chief openly marveled at the White House's appetite for talking up transit.
"[E]ven though we provide an unprecedented amount of material to the White House on these issues," Rogoff said, "we still don't know who is writing all this stuff. We don't need to know. We just need to soak it in and keep leaning forward."
In no-holds-barred style, Rogoff, also declared an end to the days of highways taking precedence over transit because the former falsely purport to be "paid for" by user fees.
"That paradigm is now dead," he said. "It's been dead for well over a year, [since] the highway trust fund first had to be bailed out with an $8 billion infusion of general fund revenues. The only thing that's happened since then is that Congress was required to put billions more in general fund revenues into the highway trust fund to keep our highway investments flowing."
Check out Rogoff's complete remarks after the jump.
Before I begin, I wanted to take a moment to congratulate Dr. Bev Scott. This has been a challenging year for the MARTA - just as it has been challenging for so many transit agencies across the country. Even with all those challenges, Dr. Scott found the time to be a true leader for all of us.
I was very grateful for her participation on behalf of APTA in our stakeholders meeting on transit safety. And I was thrilled that her tenure as APTA chairman could culminate in the winning of the largest single TIGGER grant of the 43 grants we awarded under that extremely competitive $100 million program.
I also wanted to congratulate Mattie Carter. We learned yesterday in her address that APTA will continue under strong and passionate leadership under Mattie Carter. This is a great milestone for Ms. Carter as well as a milestone for all of transit in Memphis. I look forward to her leadership in the year to come.
I also want to thank APTA for extending such a warm welcome to Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday. We truly have a great friend and advocate for transit in Secretary LaHood. He has been a great partner when it has come to telling America all that we are accomplishing under the Recovery Act.
When you want to evaluate the Obama Administration's commitment to public transportation, you don't have to look any farther than the Recovery Act. Our agency was granted an 80 percent increase to our budget in that bill. That's a far higher increase than was given to any other mode of transportation and perhaps any other Federal agency funded under the Recovery Act. The only exception was the new $8 billion investment in high speed rail - yet another investment in public transportation.
I will admit that when I first took the reigns of the FTA at the end of May there was deep nervousness throughout the agency of our ability to meet our 50 percent obligation goal by September 1st. The fact that we reached 90 percent obligation by that September 1st deadline is a testament to the extraordinary hard work of the FTA staff both in headquarters and regions and the hard work of all of our transit grantees at making things happen.
At a time when Congress is revaluating our entire Federal investment in surface transportation and how we will pay for it, it is essential that we show continued progress with the Recovery Act. It is not enough that we just obligate dollars. Our charge is to put people to work - to get those dollars disbursed in an immediate productive way.
That obligation deadline was a milestone for the FTA. It was a huge challenge to surge 80 percent in a single year. Some in the FTA staff are appropriately hoping that they can now take a breath. But I have had to tell them - there will be no breath. There is too much to do. The President expects more of the FTA than any prior president since Lyndon Johnson. And we will fulfill those expectations. The FTA will continue to lean forward. In everything we do.
I know it's not often that FTA administrators quote philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, but Kierkegaard did say that, "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." I plan to see to it that the FTA continues to lean forward in the years to come. I need the transit industry to lean forward with me. Now is the time to lean forward because we have a President who sees public transportation as being at the very center of his vision for a more prosperous future and a more livable America.
My staff has told me that we at the FTA have responded to more inquiries and provided more information that comes directly from the White House in President Obama's first nine months in office than we have provided in the last eight years. For us at the FTA, this White House is "high maintenance" – and we expect it to stay that way.
Within just a few months of taking office, President Obama told the nation that: "global climate change and our reliance on foreign oil have … created tremendous national security challenges. To solve these problems and create new economic opportunities we must make our transportation system cleaner and more efficient."
The Vice President of the United States just a few weeks ago stated that, "all over the country, resources are being put to work not only creating jobs now but also investing in the future. A future that strengthens our transit system, makes us more energy efficient, and increases safety."
Continually, we hear voicings from the President and the Vice President that go directly to the heart of our mission and your mission. We hear them, seemingly, every other week.
I’ll tell you a small confession, even though we provide an unprecedented amount of material to the White House on these issues, we still don't know who is writing all this stuff. We don't need to know. We just need to soak it in and keep leaning forward.
And it's not just the White House that is concerned about greenhouse gas emissions or congestion relief or the need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The new majorities in Congress are speaking with an equally strong voice. No longer is public transportation just viewed as an appropriate solution if it can be done cheaply enough. Our enterprise is viewed as worthy in and of itself. That's why it's time to lean forward.
Yesterday, I told you that Secretary LaHood is making sure that FTA always has a full seat at the table when it comes to the debate over our transportation challenges. We all know that wasn't always the case.
For so many years we were expected to be the lesser cousin when it came to surface transportation – the runt of the litter. We were told to keep our expectations low because we required a public subsidy. We were told to not compare ourselves to highway investments because highway investments paid for themselves through the Highway Trust Fund while transit investments needed a combination of funds from the Trust Fund and the General Fund.
Well I have news for those of you that have been busy operating transit systems and not focusing on the debate in Washington of recent. That paradigm is now dead. It's been dead for well over a year when the Highway Trust Fund first had to be bailed out with an $8 billion infusion of General Fund revenues. The only thing that's happened since then is that Congress was required to put billions more in General Fund revenues into the Highway Trust Fund to keep our highway investments flowing.
And mark my words, before all the debate is done on the financing of highways and transit systems in the future, there will be yet more General Fund transfers into the Highway Trust Fund to keep the Trust Fund afloat.
My purpose here is not to revel in the problems facing the highway program – I would like nothing more than to see the highway program get back on a firm footing. Let's remember the Federal aid highway program continues to flex over a billion dollars a year to public transit. In fact, just from the Recovery Act, we're expecting to see roughly $300 million in highway funds flexed over for transit. And the reality is that the Mass Transit Account of the Trust Fund isn't in good shape either. We may get through this fiscal year, but we won't get very far into the next fiscal year before we too will need an infusion of cash.
My point in raising this is to remind everyone that we are all in the same lifeboat - highways and transit together. Everything is up for grabs, including the Federal financing of our enterprise. Which is why we all must lean forward and explain that yes, our enterprise provides all those benefits you want, and yes, it requires subsidies to do it. Just like highways. We need to lean forward and make this case without apology.
How are we at the FTA leaning forward? We are being aggressive in articulating how transit fits into our broader agenda and how transit has to fit into future Federal budgets.
We are aggressively tackling changes to the New Starts decision process. That has been a core focus this month as we prepare to recommend a streamlined process to the Secretary. We currently have a process that is unnecessarily complicated, frustrating, lengthy, and positively incomprehensible to the public, the Congress, most of the transit community, and even senior managers at the FTA.
As I'm sometimes required to remind my staff – we are not charged with curing cancer here. We are deciding whether to invest some money into laying some rail or buying some paint to make an existing street lane into a designated bus lane.
We must stop our constant pursuit of a process that may be incrementally more perfect. Instead, we need a process that is faster; more understandable and defensible to the Members of Congress; and the taxpayers that are actually paying for these projects.
You should note that I didn't say that we are working on improving our New Starts "approval process." I said we were working on improving our New Starts "decision process." Note that I didn't say that the goal was a faster approval. I said it was about a faster decision.
Inevitably a streamlined process, for some projects, means an expedited decision that the Federal Government will not participate. And when we know we are not going to participate, we are not going to pretend otherwise.
I want to be clear. This administration wants more transit options for more people. We are leaning forward. The goal is a process that provides a faster path to a decision, a process that is understandable, and a process that better ensures that we get the investment at a price and on a timetable that is honest and realistic. We are not retooling our processes so that the FTA will participate in every twinkle of every mayor's eye.
No question that we need a vastly improved process. But I must also point out that periodically the FTA has gotten a bum rap on the time it takes to get a project approved. There are plenty of examples where projects sat in the pipeline for years. They sat there because they didn't have any local match. In some cases, they endured one or two terms when the mayor or the city counsel or the state legislature was hostile to the project. That certainly wasn't the fault of the FTA. But then, when they finally work through all that, they like to blame the FTA for all the years it took to bring the project to construction.
Part of our new process will mean that we won't dance for years and years with projects that are making no progress because of local circumstances. Under our streamlined approach, we are going to end our involvement with that project and focus our staff resources on getting the projects that can be approved to the finish line. FTA will be focusing our efforts on getting projects built. FTA will not be focusing our efforts on a process designed to maximize consulting fees paid by projects that will never get built.
That said, FTA will also be leaning forward on helping transit projects obtain that local match. One of the things that I have been struck by as I travel around the country is the strength of the business community in either helping or hurting a project that is seeking to get built.
We have wonderful examples where businesses have seen the benefits that will come to them and have agreed to tax themselves to make the project happen. We have other examples where businesses have been singularly focused on avoiding those taxes or avoiding the disruption that comes with the construction phase.
I intend to stand up an informal voluntary group of business leaders from around the country that will serve as ambassadors for transit. The kind of business leaders that can convince skeptical businesspeople in other communities that transit is in the interest of their bottom line. There will be more announcements on this soon.
We will be leaning forward on safety. As you heard Secretary LaHood say yesterday, we are determined to close the gap that has been known for years. We also will be focusing on the State of Good Repair (SGR) of our transit agencies. Those two issues – safety and the SGR – are inextricably linked. We are a safe industry. That has to be remembered.
But we need to lean forward on safety because even our newer systems are aging. Because this administration wants more transit service and more transit options, we must also ensure that transit is perceived by all as safe. We must focus on ensuring that a safe industry stays safe, and keeping catastrophic accidents from pushing passengers back onto the highways.
Our goal is to help agencies steadily raise their standards of safety and accurately identify their risks. APTA has done a great service on developing voluntary standards. Together, we can do more.
The science of effective SMSs has come a very long way. By strengthening our partnerships with State Safety Oversight and bringing resources to the efforts, we can lean forward and guarantee that a safe industry stays safe, even as it ages.
For all the talk on New Starts, we need to remember that the vast majority of our enterprise doesn't run rail service and doesn't plan to in the near future. We need to stay focused on the safety of our bus operators.
I am pleased that today, FTA launched a new website designed to help rural and small urban transit providers build and implement effective safety, security and emergency preparedness programs.
What does this website mean to the thousands of rural and small urban transit providers across the Nation? It means having quick and easy access to practical and relevant information resources. It means having a tool to help you assess your program's strengths and weaknesses. It means having the ability to ask questions and receive answers from peers on critical safety matters. The site will give users quick and easy access to a comprehensive resource library that houses over 1,000 technical assistance documents.
Identifying safety as our number one priority is not just about rhetoric. As Secretary LaHood stated, we plan to lean forward in this area in ways that we never have before.
That is just a few ways by which FTA is leaning forward. I need you to lean forward with me. We need to maintain the outstanding partnership that FTA and APTA has had over the years.
Anyone who has had to push a car out of a ditch knows that if two people are pushing, but not in the same direction and not at the same time, you don't get very far. But if you lean forward and push forward, in the same direction and simultaneously, you get the car out of the ditch.
We are in a period of extraordinary opportunity for public transportation. Let's not miss this opportunity. Let's lean forward, push, in the same direction, together and simultaneously. If we do, we will accomplish great things.