May 2012

Nonprofit's interest in public transit could break gridlock

by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher

A lot of attention has been paid over the past three years of the Obama administration to the public transportation industry as a source of sustainable economic growth. The idea has taken on new meaning, however, as nonprofit foundations with deep pockets are beginning to put money into the efforts.

The most visible of these efforts has been by the Rockefeller Foundation. Underwritten by Rockefeller money, Duke University’s Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness, hosted bus rapid transit (BRT) experts from the public transportation industry and the research community to address strategies on how to build a larger BRT industry, particularly on the supply side.

In fact, the event’s theme was a question, “How can the whole supply chain — i.e., firms that provide BRT design, engineering, vehicles, equipment and services — work as an industry to promote BRT?” The Duke Center is to help expand the industry by performing a “value chain analysis” and market potential studies. It’s very similar to the “Action Plan” for BRT that was developed by the FTA under Gordon Linton and Jenna Dorn more than a decade ago. This effort will also address workforce training and U.S. export potential.

Funding project, standards development
The Rockefeller Foundation is also putting money into developing local BRT projects, including Chicago and Montgomery County, Md., and funding another industry gathering to help cities overcome barriers to building projects. It also has put money into another standards effort to help raise the bar on BRT service, design and quality.

BRT is only the latest interest of nonprofits in public transportation as a growth industry of the future. Duke and others have put forward efforts for rail sectors of public transportation and the freight railroad industry. On top of all that, they are also considering how to help local and state governments get more referenda passed, to boost the 70% historic win rate even higher.

Welcome alternative to federal policy
While no substitute, this nongovernment, non-federal approach could be a welcome alternative strategy to the slow progress of reauthorization of federal policy on Capitol Hill. While the Senate passed a bill, it was for only two years, because of a lack of consensus on where money for a longer bill or future policy going forward could be found. The House, of course, is in even worse shape, although it was recently successful in extending the current bill to give itself more time.

While these are encouraging trends, and additional signs of a public wanting to see more transportation alternatives, they are no match for real government leadership. Public-private partnerships only work when both public and private partners are willing. Maybe these outside activities can embarrass the Congress and the president to act — if there is any shame in them left.


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