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July 2008

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Transit funding, expansion discussions take center stage at APTA’s annual rail conference

Talk about timing. When the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) held its annual rail conference June 1-4 in San Francisco, public transit was a national news story, receiving television and print media coverage on the ridership surge resulting from record-high gas prices.

This year’s event focused on a number of hot topics — accommodating ridership growth, funding system expansion and maintaining systems in a state of good repair.

During the June 1 host forum, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delivered a keynote addressing infrastructure reform in light of the upcoming authorization of the next federal surface transportation program, according to APTA’s Passenger Transport weekly newspaper.

Pelosi talked about the importance of rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, noting that it is a national security issue (to lower dependence on oil imports); economic issue (to improve competitiveness and create new jobs); environmental issue (to reduce sprawl and congestion, and cut greenhouse gas emissions); and equality issue (“Public transit is the road to opportunity.”).

“The question is not whether we must invest in our nation’s infrastructure, but rather, how do we pay for it?” she said, calling for “serious investments in rail transit systems.”

Right time, right people

Pelosi believes the right House leaders — Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and others — are at the table to make sound transportation funding decisions during the upcoming transportation authorization bill process.

“House Democrats are committed to robust public investment in public transportation,” she said. “We are committed to advancing a bill that — at a minimum — honors the historic 80/20 funding split between highways and transit.”

House leaders are equally committed to reforming the New Starts process for funding transit-rail projects, she believes.

“It is essential that the environmental and economic development benefits of rail transit become fundamental criteria in the decision-making process for New Starts,” Pelosi said.

That Pelosi — the first House speaker to ever appear at an APTA conference — gave the keynote is an indication of how serious House leadership is about public transit, said Southern California Regional Rail Authority Chief Executive Officer David Solow during the June 2 opening session. Now, they have to turn talk into action, he said.

“Increased federal investment in passenger-rail services is critical to bolstering the country’s competitive position on the global stage,” said Solow, who also serves as APTA’s vice chair-commuter and intercity rail.

Federal Transit Administrator James Simpson, who also spoke during the opening session, agreed.

“Now is exactly the right moment for everyone who has the power to affect the transit industry — local operators, state and local governments, Congress and we at the FTA — to take stock of where we are and where we need to go financially, operationally, environmentally and politically,” he said.

Simpson noted that state-of-good-repair issues are one of his top priorities, and encouraged agencies to seek public-private partnerships (PPPs) as alternative funding sources.

“The federal role has limits,” he said.

Other conference topics of discussion included transit’s impact on the environment, the importance of intercity rail corridors and transit-oriented development.


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