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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

September 2011

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Profile: American Public Transportation Association President Bill Millar

by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

When Mike Scanlon first met Bill Millar in the 1970s, Millar was working for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and Scanlon, for the Port Authority of Allegheny County. At the time, Millar — a Cleveland-area native whose family had a home on Lake Erie — owned a boat named "Mast Transit," Scanlon recalls.

The name reflected Millar's two great passions: boating and mass transit. In the years since, Millar has made a career of improving the latter. He's developed new transportation systems, headed a transit agency, served on transportation boards and, for the past decade and a half, advocated and rallied support for the industry he loves as president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

"Bill is an institution in and of himself. I don't think there's anybody who can come close to matching his enthusiasm," says Scanlon, who now serves as executive director of Caltrain and APTA's chairman. "This man absolutely loves this industry, and has devoted his working life to it."

That's why when the 63-year-old Millar retires on Oct. 31, completing 40 years in the transit industry and 15 years at APTA's helm, he'll leave a noticeable void — not just for Scanlon, but for other APTA members, transit executives and transportation officials. Millar is a walking encyclopedia of transit knowledge; in his eagerness to spread the word about the industry, he's more than happy to share that know-how. Millar has worked tirelessly to improve the quality of public transit in the United States and make APTA a more comprehensive, successful organization. His efforts have resulted in increased association membership and more federal funding for public transit.

"Bill is unusually talented at figuring out how to move an organization in various directions to really make significant progress," says former PennDOT Secretary Al Biehler, who served as the port authority's director of planning, engineering and construction under Millar.

Working in the transit industry wasn't always a dream of Millar's. Rather, he loved geography, and obtained an undergraduate degree in it from Northwestern University. But Millar wasn't sure what to do with his education. He knew he didn't want to work for the U.S. Geological Survey or teach geography.

Step In The Right Direction

A college internship in the late 1960s helped nudge him in the transit direction. After working on an urban planning project in Evanston, Ill., Millar enrolled at the University of Iowa to obtain a master's degree in urban transportation policy. The then-recently married Millar chose to pursue a fellowship to help support himself and his wife. The urban planning program offered two options: housing or transportation. Millar chose the transportation fellowship because it paid more.

In the early 1970s, Millar signed on as a county transportation planner in Lancaster County, Pa. During his year-long stint, Millar was part of a two- person working group that explored public transportation options after a private transit operator announced it was going to abandon its fixed-route service. The new bus system Millar helped plan — the Red Rose Transit Authority — still is in operation today.

In 1973, Millar was recruited by PennDOT to help set up a free transit program for senior citizens. Millar's tenure there was "a pretty important time for me," he says. "I could see I was really helping people."

In 1977, Millar had an opportunity to do some more feel-good work when he was recruited by the Port Authority of Allegheny County to set up a paratransit service.

"The ADA act had not yet been passed, but the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had passed, and transit systems were struggling with how to assist persons with disabilities," he says.

Millar helped create the port authority's ACCESS system, which was operated (and still is) by a private firm but overseen by the authority.

"At the time, it was quite a contrast to what other cities were doing," says Millar. "As a result, we built that system into the world's largest specialized paratransit service, and it remained the world's largest until probably five or 10 years ago, when New York City, Chicago and L.A. surpassed it."

Today, ACCESS remains a top transportation choice for Pittsburgh-area residents with disabilities who need to move about the region's hilly terrain, even though the port authority offers bus, bus rapid transit and light-rail services, as well.

Millar also helped set up the agency's government affairs department, which worked to secure funding for the port authority's East and West busways, and light-rail system.

In 1983, Millar was appointed as the port authority's chief executive officer. And he appointed Scanlon, who also had worked his way through the agency's ranks, as chief operating officer. As a boss, Millar was "excellent," says Scanlon.

"He allowed me to run the operations, he trusted my judgment, he gave me plenty of running room, he had my back and he was totally supportive," says Scanlon.

Millar also thought of his COO often outside the workplace. At least, that's what Scanlon likes to believe. Whenever Millar would travel to other transit properties, he never failed to bring Scanlon a souvenir of sorts.

"He would always come back with his little ideas scribbled on notes that were hardly legible, and I was just delighted to get them," Scanlon jokes. "Whenever he traveled, no matter where in the world he went, he brought me home these little nuggets of ideas."

Setting Standards

During his 13-year stint as the port authority's CEO, Millar oversaw construction of several busways and the light-rail system. He also helped turn the port authority from a politically driven agency to one that valued quality workers.

"The Pennsylvania legislators of that time would come to the port authority to try and get their favorite people hired. Bill was interested in getting people hired based on quality, and creating a well-run operation from a business standpoint," says Biehler. "As a result, the port authority's stature — not only within the community, but across the country — rose significantly."

Millar's stature rose, as well.

"Bill was almost a celebrity in Pittsburgh,"says APTA Vice President of Policy Art Guzzetti, who also worked with Millar at the port authority. "He was always visible in the media because he was viewed as a spokesperson for various community efforts — not just transit, but how the community could grow economically and how the community could be more attractive for its residents."

Millar wasn't only a transit champion at the local level. By serving on various APTA committees, Millar played a role in transit efforts on the national level. He also served on the Transportation Research Board, overseeing a task force that analyzed public transportation research needs. The task force's recommendations led to the creation of the Transit Cooperative Research Program, which today receives $10 million in federal funding annually.

"He hit the ground running at a very early age. He got interested in transit in all its dimensions and he was running a system by his early 30s," says Guzzetti. "But he did more than that; he saw the importance of trying to figure things out for the long term, and that was apparent not just in Pittsburgh, but at the national level."

By the mid-1990s, Millar was vice chair of the APTA Executive Committee, giving him even more exposure to the goings-on between Congress and the administration, and the transit industry.

After serving the transit industry at the state and local levels, Millar had an itch to work on the national stage. He got his chance in 1996, when then- APTA President Jack Gilstrap retired.

"It was intriguing to me to see if I could do good things working at the national level," Millar says.

He interviewed for the job and got it, taking the reins on Nov. 1, 1996.

"Bill brought exactly the right attributes to the job. He understood the need to educate elected and appointed officials," says Scanlon. "His passion, coupled with his knowledge, created an instant credibility and as the spokesperson for this industry, he just brought APTA to an entirely different level."

Under Millar's direction, APTA officials have reached out to other transportation lobbying organizations, including the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, American Road & Transportation Builders Association and Associated General Contractors of America.

"We didn't ask them to give up their traditional focus on highways, but rather helped them understand the value of investing in public transit, as well," says Millar.

Reaching out has gone a long way toward helping APTA develop key relationships with the groups, which have launched various advertising campaigns in conjunction with APTA to promote common interests, such as the passage of a new surface transportation authorization bill.

"Before Bill, the folks at APTA tended to work more in a silo by themselves, but Bill recognized the importance of working together with the other transportation modes to approach Congress on a global basis," says Biehler. "It made a huge difference when it came to getting federal money under TEA-21 and SAFETEA-LU."

APTA's also strengthened its relationships with organizations that are involved in national transportation policy, such as the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, Women's Transportation Seminar, Eno Foundation and Reconnecting America.

"Bill knows that part of being a good leader is thinking beyond your own agenda and building coalitions and partnerships," says Guzzetti. "People are going to work a lot harder if they see their own self interest on the line."

Millar also helped APTA expand its reach within the association. In 1999, the APTA board changed the "T" in the organization's name from "transit" to "transportation," a move that "opened us up to be the home of a broader range of agencies and companies," says Millar.

At the same time, APTA changed its bylaws to give business members full membership benefits — an unusual move for a trade organization in Washington, says Millar. But opening up APTA membership to more private-sector firms has "broadened our ability to adapt in times of political change, when sometimes the public service message is more important and sometimes the private sector message is more important," he says. "So it gave us a lot more heft, you might say, with an ability to work with the Administration and Congress regardless of where the political winds are."

Spreading The Message

Also in 1999, APTA launched the Public Transportation Partnership for Tomorrow, or PT2 , a program that called for researching public transit's benefits and creating a communications campaign to explain those benefits to others.

"We decided that if we were going to play an expanded role, we really had to be able to understand ourselves first and then help the rest of the world understand how important public transit is," says Millar. "That program really laid the foundation for everything we did that came after that."

APTA members raised $30 million for PT2, and the results that stemmed from the research — facts and figures to support public transit's mobility and environmental benefits, and job creation — has been used since. The information especially came in handy when the Obama Administration decided to pursue a stimulus program in 2008.

"We were well positioned to argue to Congress the value of investing in public transit, and we ended up with $8.4 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money," says Millar.

APTA's success in garnering federal dollars for public transit can't only be attributed to the information association officials are able to present. Part of it is how that information is presented, and nobody can do it better than Millar, says Guzzetti.

"When Bill Millar is talking, people listen," he says. "Bill can take an issue and present it in a way that resonates. He tells a story not just by giving the facts, but illustrating it in a compelling way, sometimes in a funny way, sometimes in an anecdotal way."

Millar's efforts to expand APTA's reach and become more active — inside the beltway and throughout the country — have produced tangible results. Since Millar took the reins, APTA membership has increased from 1,000 to 1,500, and federal funding for public transportation has soared from $3.8 billion to $10.5 billion. Not that Millar will take all the credit.

"I'm very proud of what we've done and there have been a lot of solid accomplishments, but nobody does it alone," he says. "I've been ... in the right place at the right time and hopefully provided good, solid leadership that's allowed my team of people to do many things."

But there's a lot more to being a good leader than providing direction. Millar's exuberant personality can rouse a crowd of sleepy APTA conference-goers at an 8 a.m. opening session. His devotion to and love for his job is apparent in any conversation you have with him. His knowledge of all aspects of transit is staggering. And his tireless work ethic has earned him the respect of APTA staffers, industry colleagues and transit professionals.

"From our biggest transit properties to the smallest, to business members of all sizes and all categories, Bill has been there for everybody," says Scanlon. "When you're with Bill, he makes you feel like you're the most important person in the world."

That said, the association will be left in good hands once Millar retires, Scanlon and Millar believe. APTA has appointed Michael Melaniphy as the new president and chief executive officer, effective Nov. 1. Currently vice president-public sector for bus manufacturer Motor Coach Industries Inc., he has 23 years of experience in transportation. He's also led public transit systems in North Carolina, Kansas, Ohio and Texas. Scanlon, who helped lead the search for the new president, calls Melaniphy a "great, wonderful and capable guy."

Words Of Wisdom

Millar says he's pleased with the board's decision to hire Melaniphy. His advice for the new president?

"Remember that APTA is a voluntary membership organization, so continue to listen carefully to the members, help them articulate what it is they want to do, put together a good strategy for it and then go out and do it."

It's simple advice that has served Millar well over the years. As he prepares to hand over the reins, Millar says he will most miss the people in the industry, the collaboration among agencies and visits to various transit properties.

As for Millar's post-retirement plans? He's talked to some companies about serving on boards or advisory committees, and to a few universities about "helping out with some things," but doesn't plan to take on too much.

"I really do mean this to be a retirement," says Millar. "I don't have any desire to run anything full time or go to an office every day, but I'm not the sort that's likely to go sit in a rocking chair."

Millar and his wife plan to sell their Virginia home and move to a property they own on Chesapeake Bay, where Millar will find plenty of time to sail, boat and swim. And even though Millar says he's traveled "enough to last three lifetimes," he and his wife plan to "do some travel that's on our terms," he says.

No matter where Millar is, transit probably won't be far from his mind. After devoting an entire career to making the transit world a better place, even the humble Millar can't overlook the contributions he's made. And when he walks out of his APTA office one last time on Oct. 31, Millar says he won't have any regrets.

"I've been involved with a lot of improvements in public transportation in general and APTA in particular, and I leave with a very clear conscience that I did the best I could," he says. "I believe the status of public transit is in fact much greater today than it was when I started my career. There are many reasons for that, but hopefully I've had at least some small part of it."


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