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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.

19blog_obama_train.jpgPresident Obama, on a train. (Photo: NYT)

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

Check out Rogoff's complete remarks after the jump.

Before I begin, I wanted to take a moment to congratulate Dr. BevScott. This has been a challenging year for the MARTA - just as it hasbeen challenging for so many transit agencies across the country. Evenwith all those challenges, Dr. Scott found the time to be a true leaderfor all of us.

I was very grateful for her participation on behalf of APTA in ourstakeholders meeting on transit safety. And I was thrilled that hertenure as APTA chairman could culminate in the winning of the largestsingle TIGGER grant of the 43 grants we awarded under that extremelycompetitive $100 million program.

I also wanted to congratulate Mattie Carter. We learned yesterday inher address that APTA will continue under strong and passionateleadership under Mattie Carter. This is a great milestone for Ms.Carter as well as a milestone for all of transit in Memphis. I lookforward to her leadership in the year to come.

I also want to thank APTA for extending such a warm welcome toSecretary Ray LaHood yesterday.  We truly have a great friend andadvocate for transit in Secretary LaHood. He has been a great partnerwhen it has come to telling America all that we are accomplishing underthe Recovery Act.

When you want to evaluate the Obama Administration's commitment topublic transportation, you don't have to look any farther than theRecovery Act. Our agency was granted an 80 percent increase to ourbudget in that bill. That's a far higher increase than was given to anyother mode of transportation and perhaps any other Federal agencyfunded under the Recovery Act. The only exception was the new $8billion investment in high speed rail - yet another investment inpublic transportation.

I will admit that when I first took the reigns of the FTA at the endof May there was deep nervousness throughout the agency of our abilityto meet our 50 percent obligation goal by September 1st. The fact that we reached 90 percent obligation by that September 1stdeadline is a testament to the extraordinary hard work of the FTA staffboth in headquarters and regions and the hard work of all of ourtransit grantees at making things happen.

At a time when Congress is revaluating our entire Federal investmentin surface transportation and how we will pay for it, it is essentialthat we show continued progress with the Recovery Act. It is not enoughthat we just obligate dollars. Our charge is to put people to work - toget those dollars disbursed in an immediate productive way.

That obligation deadline was a milestone for the FTA.  It was a hugechallenge to surge 80 percent in a single year. Some in the FTA staffare appropriately hoping that they can now take a breath. But I havehad 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 sinceLyndon Johnson. And we will fulfill those expectations.  The FTA willcontinue to lean forward.  In everything we do.

I know it's not often that FTA administrators quote philosopherslike Søren Kierkegaard, but Kierkegaard did say that, "Life can only beunderstood backwards, but it must be lived forwards." I plan to see toit that the FTA continues to lean forward in the years to come. I needthe transit industry to lean forward with me.  Now is the time to leanforward because we have a President who sees public transportation asbeing at the very center of his vision for a more prosperous future anda more livable America.

My staff has told me that we at the FTA have responded to moreinquiries and provided more information that comes directly from theWhite House in President Obama's first nine months in office than wehave provided in the last eight years. For us at the FTA, this WhiteHouse is "high maintenance" – and we expect it to stay that way.

Within just a few months of taking office, President Obama told thenation that: "global climate change and our reliance on foreign oilhave … created tremendous national security challenges. To solve theseproblems and create new economic opportunities we must make ourtransportation system cleaner and more efficient."

The Vice President of the United States just a few weeks ago statedthat, "all over the country, resources are being put to work not onlycreating jobs now but also investing in the future. A future thatstrengthens our transit system, makes us more energy efficient, andincreases safety."

Continually, we hear voicings from the President and the VicePresident that go directly to the heart of our mission and yourmission.  We hear them, seemingly, every other week.

I’ll tell you a small confession, even though we provide anunprecedented amount of material to the White House on these issues, westill 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 greenhousegas emissions or congestion relief or the need to reduce our dependenceon foreign oil.  The new majorities in Congress are speaking with anequally strong voice. No longer is public transportation just viewed asan appropriate solution if it can be done cheaply enough. Ourenterprise is viewed as worthy in and of itself. That's why it's timeto lean forward.

Yesterday, I told you that Secretary LaHood is making sure that FTAalways has a full seat at the table when it comes to the debate overour transportation challenges. We all know that wasn't always the case.

For so many years we were expected to be the lesser cousin when itcame to surface transportation – the runt of the litter. We were toldto keep our expectations low because we required a public subsidy. Wewere told to not compare ourselves to highway investments becausehighway investments paid for themselves through the Highway Trust Fundwhile transit investments needed a combination of funds from the TrustFund and the General Fund.

Well I have news for those of you that have been busy operatingtransit 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 theHighway Trust Fund first had to be bailed out with an $8 billioninfusion of General Fund revenues. The only thing that's happened sincethen is that Congress was required to put billions more in General Fundrevenues into the Highway Trust Fund to keep our highway investmentsflowing.

And mark my words, before all the debate is done on the financing ofhighways and transit systems in the future, there will be yet moreGeneral Fund transfers into the Highway Trust Fund to keep the TrustFund afloat.

My purpose here is not to revel in the problems facing the highwayprogram – I would like nothing more than to see the highway program getback on a firm footing. Let's remember the Federal aid highway programcontinues to flex over a billion dollars a year to public transit. Infact, just from the Recovery Act, we're expecting to see roughly $300million in highway funds flexed over for transit. And the reality isthat the Mass Transit Account of the Trust Fund isn't in good shapeeither.  We may get through this fiscal year, but we won't get very farinto 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 inthe same lifeboat - highways and transit together. Everything is up forgrabs, including the Federal financing of our enterprise. Which is whywe all must lean forward and explain that yes, our enterprise providesall those benefits you want, and yes, it requires subsidies to do it. Just like highways. We need to lean forward and make this case withoutapology. 

How are we at the FTA leaning forward? We are being aggressive inarticulating how transit fits into our broader agenda and how transithas to fit into future Federal budgets.

We are aggressively tackling changes to the New Starts decisionprocess.  That has been a core focus this month as we prepare torecommend a streamlined process to the Secretary. We currently have aprocess that is unnecessarily complicated, frustrating, lengthy, andpositively incomprehensible to the public, the Congress, most of thetransit community, and even senior managers at the FTA. 

As I'm sometimes required to remind my staff – we are not chargedwith curing cancer here.  We are deciding whether to invest some moneyinto laying some rail or buying some paint to make an existing streetlane into a designated bus lane.  

We must stop our constant pursuit of a process that may beincrementally more perfect. Instead, we need a process that is faster;more understandable and defensible to the Members of Congress; and thetaxpayers that are actually paying for these projects. 

You should note that I didn't say that we are working on improvingour New Starts "approval process."  I said we were working on improvingour New Starts "decision process." Note that I didn't say that the goalwas a faster approval.  I said it was about a faster decision.

Inevitably a streamlined process, for some projects, means anexpedited decision that the Federal Government will not participate. And when we know we are not going to participate, we are not going topretend otherwise. 

I want to be clear.  This administration wants more transit optionsfor more people.  We are leaning forward.  The goal is a process thatprovides a faster path to a decision, a process that is understandable,and a process that better ensures that we get the investment at a priceand on a timetable that is honest and realistic. We are not retoolingour processes so that the FTA will participate in every twinkle ofevery mayor's eye.

No question that we need a vastly improved process.  But I must alsopoint out that periodically the FTA has gotten a bum rap on the time ittakes to get a project approved.  There are plenty of examples whereprojects sat in the pipeline for years.  They sat there because theydidn't have any local match.  In some cases, they endured one or twoterms when the mayor or the city counsel or the state legislature washostile to the project.  That certainly wasn't the fault of the FTA. But then, when they finally work through all that, they like to blamethe 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 andyears with projects that are making no progress because of localcircumstances.  Under our streamlined approach, we are going to end ourinvolvement with that project and focus our staff resources on gettingthe projects that can be approved to the finish line.   FTA will befocusing our efforts on getting projects built. FTA will not befocusing our efforts on a process designed to maximize consulting feespaid by projects that will never get built. 

That said, FTA will also be leaning forward on helping transitprojects obtain that local match.  One of the things that I have beenstruck by as I travel around the country is the strength of thebusiness community in either helping or hurting a project that isseeking to get built. 

We have wonderful examples where businesses have seen the benefitsthat will come to them and have agreed to tax themselves to make theproject happen.  We have other examples where businesses have beensingularly focused on avoiding those taxes or avoiding the disruptionthat comes with the construction phase.

I intend to stand up an informal voluntary group of business leadersfrom around the country that will serve as ambassadors for transit. The kind of business leaders that can convince skeptical businesspeoplein other communities that transit is in the interest of their bottomline.  There will be more announcements on this soon.

We will be leaning forward on safety. As you heard Secretary LaHoodsay yesterday, we are determined to close the gap that has been knownfor years. We also will be focusing on the State of Good Repair (SGR)of our transit agencies.  Those two issues – safety and the SGR – areinextricably linked. We are a safe industry.  That has to beremembered. 

But we need to lean forward on safety because even our newer systemsare aging.   Because this administration wants more transit service andmore transit options, we must also ensure that transit is perceived byall as safe. We must focus on ensuring that a safe industry stays safe,and keeping catastrophic accidents from pushing passengers back ontothe highways. 

Our goal is to help agencies steadily raise their standards ofsafety and accurately identify their risks.  APTA has done a greatservice on developing voluntary standards.  Together, we can do more. 

The science of effective SMSs has come a very long way.  Bystrengthening our partnerships with State Safety Oversight and bringingresources to the efforts, we can lean forward and guarantee that a safeindustry stays safe, even as it ages.

For all the talk on New Starts, we need to remember that the vastmajority of our enterprise doesn't run rail service and doesn't plan toin the near future. We need to stay focused on the safety of our busoperators.

I am pleased that today, FTA launched a new website designed to helprural and small urban transit providers build and implement effectivesafety, security and emergency preparedness programs.

What does this website mean to the thousands of rural and smallurban transit providers across the Nation? It means having quick andeasy access to practical and relevant information resources. It meanshaving a tool to help you assess your program's strengths andweaknesses. It means having the ability to ask questions and receiveanswers from peers on critical safety matters.  The site will giveusers quick and easy access to a comprehensive resource library thathouses over 1,000 technical assistance documents.

Identifying safety as our number one priority is not just aboutrhetoric.  As Secretary LaHood stated, we plan to lean forward in thisarea in ways that we never have before.

That is just a few ways by which FTA is leaning forward.  I need youto lean forward with me.  We need to maintain the outstandingpartnership that FTA and APTA has had over the years.

Anyone who has had to push a car out of a ditch knows that if twopeople are pushing, but not in the same direction and not at the sametime, you don't get very far.  But if you lean forward and pushforward, in the same direction and simultaneously, you get the car outof the ditch. 

We are in a period of extraordinary opportunity for publictransportation.  Let's not miss this opportunity. Let's lean forward,push, in the same direction, together and simultaneously. If we do, wewill accomplish great things. 

Thank you.

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