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
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. 

Thank you.