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By Julie Sneider, associate editor“America’s future is riding on public transportation” was a refrain heard throughout the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Rail Conference, held June 15-18 in Montreal. With the U.S. MAP-21 transportation law set to expire at September’s end and the U.S. Highway Trust Fund’s solvency in question, APTA leaders and transit-rail executives implored their North American colleagues to spread the word about the integral connection between their agencies and the economic strength of the communities they serve. Several speakers also sounded the alarm over the potential damage to their agencies, communities and the U.S. economy should the Highway Trust Fund run out of money — a situation that the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has estimated could happen before summer’s end.As for telling the industry’s story, APTA officials promoted the organization’s legislative proposal for a six-year, $50 billion federal high-speed intercity passenger-rail program.“We’re making the case for very aggressive growth in public transit funding,” said APTA Chair Peter Varga in his opening general session remarks. “This plan recognizes our needs. Public transportation systems keep people moving every day.”The proposal, which APTA approved in December 2013, recommends that Congress reauthorize the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) or, as an alternative, adopt a separate high-speed intercity passenger rail (HSIPR) title that would include funding from new sources of revenue and not the current Mass Transit and Highway Trust Fund. When it comes to funding and finance, the APTA recommendations also called for: • not less than $50 billion over six years and building on federal investments totaling $12 billion;• the federal share would be a 90 percent share, consistent with construction of the interstate highway program; a dedicated and indexed federal revenue source — other than the current federal gas tax — to plan, design and construct HSIPR;• federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funding for intercity passenger-rail and other public transportation projects;• streamlining the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program; and• adequate funding of the Federal Highway Administrations Section 130 grade-crossing elimination program to accommodate high-priority passenger-rail corridors and high-risk crossings in those corridors. Varga and APTA President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Melaniphy both talked up APTA’s new grassroots campaign, “Where Public Transportation Goes, Community Grows.” Designed to broaden support for public transportation and create a favorable environment for Congress to pass surface transportation reauthorization, the campaign will demonstrate the value transit investment can create for cities. For example: Every $1 communities invest in public transportation generates $4 in economic returns; 50,000 jobs result from the productivity gains of $1 billion in federal investment; and residential property values perform 42 percent better on average when located near public transportation with high-frequency service, according to a campaign flier.“The more our message gets out there, the greater our success will be,” Varga told conference attendees.The campaign will be used by transit agencies to share their story with local, state and congressional representatives. Rail is in the midst of a renaissance, Melaniphy said, noting that very weekend a new light-rail service — Metro Transit’s Green Line — opened in Minneapolis.“We need to create a political momentum” for transit-rail investment, Melaniphy added. “The public is indicating its support at the local ballot box for public transit and rail, yet we still can’t get a surface transportation reauthorization passed by Congress. We have to fight right now to get a transportation bill passed.”Canada’s future also is riding on public transportation — at least that seemed to be the gist of the messages from Canada’s passenger- and transit-rail representatives who spoke at the opening general session. Michael Roschlau, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, told the audience that never before in his long has he witnessed as much rail transportation investment in Canada as is occurring today.Rail is showing itself to be a preferred mode of transportation in Canada, which has resulted in economic investment in Canadian cities and helped to expand environmental sustainability. Today’s youth are demanding public transportation such as rail and those communities that invest in it will benefit from the economic opportunities that follow, he said.Likewise, VIA Rail Canada Inc.’s newly appointed President and CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano talked about how his railroad was adapting to the millennial generation’s desire for public transportation. To attract younger riders, VIA is investing in quality mobile wireless Internet technology; he suggested to his rail transportation colleagues that they do the same.“Our children’s mobility is virtual — their desire is to be connected as they move around,” Desjardins-Siciliano told the crowd in his first official public appearance since being promoted to the post a month ago. “We are seeing a boost in traffic because of mobile Wi-fi. Customers tell us that’s what makes their travel via rail meaningful.”Later in the conference’s opening day, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo and Federal Transit Administration Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan provided an update from the USDOT. Both advocated for the GROW AMERICA Act, the four-year, $302 billion surface transportation bill the department recently sent to Congress.Szabo began his remarks by acknowledging the conference’s location in Quebec, where a crude-oil train derailed and exploded on July 6, 2013, in the small town of Lac-Megantic. Forty-seven people were killed in the accident. That incident and others have challenged the USDOT and the rail industry to focus even more attention on safety, Szabo said. The GROW AMERICA Act would increase federal investment in all surface transportation modes and ensure that “American rail grows safely,” Szabo said. For the first time, the bill would provide dedicated funding for rail safety programs and invest in a high-performance rail system, including $19 billion during the next four years.“It is not sustainable to continue under-investing in our transportation system — and for rail not to achieve parity with other modes, so we can better balance our transportation system,” Szabo said. The U.S. population growth, combined with already congested highways and ridership increases on Amtrak and transit rail systems, add up to the need for rail to be a cost-effective, environmentally friendly form of transportation, he said, adding: “So this is the future we must prepare for.” In her remarks, McMillan described the next few months as the “summer of decision” for passenger rail and public transportation.“We face both reauthorization and a looming shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund that provides so many of our critical transportation investments,” she said. “And it’s not just about the future of our transportation systems. … This really is about sustaining the growth and the quality of life in our communities. All of it is on the table now — and in the next few months, Congress will decide to act or it will decide to delay.”The GROW AMERICA measure would provide $72 billion for transit, a 70 percent increase in current spending.“That’s the ‘go big or go home’ philosophy of putting something forward, enough to allow us to increase our core formula grant programs, expand services and invest in a meaningful state of good repair,” she said.Any bill that Congress may pass will be a compromise resulting from negotiations, she noted. So, what would a worthy final bill look like from a transportation industry perspective? First, it should close the existing deficit in infrastructure state of good repair; second, it should stay ahead of growing demand for transit and an expanding population; and third, it should create “ladders of opportunity,” or jobs for workers.During a question-and-answer session, Melaniphy asked Szabo and McMillan how agency leaders could avoid getting distracted by the political “craziness going on in D.C.”Both Szabo and McMillan advised the audience to remain unified in sharing their transit-rail success stories on the Hill.“What I tell my staff is, ‘Ignore the noise and just do good work,’ ” Szabo said. “Your stories are local, and they carry powerful messages. Don’t worry about the political theater.”Added McMillan: “Discussions in whatever form will focus on the differences [between proposals]. It’s up to us in the transit industry to focus on the unity.”