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This October, William Millar will celebrate his 15th year as the president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). It is also on this anniversary that he will be stepping down from his post, but not before leaving behind a distinguished legacy of diligently promoting public transportation and helping increase federal investment levels.
METRO Executive Editor Janna Starcic recently spoke with Millar about his accomplishments and what his plans are now.
Tell me about your first experiences with public transportation.
I started using public transit at a very young age. I paid a nickel every day to ride the Euclid transit system outside of Cleveland to go back and forth to school. Also, at the end of my street, there was a bus that took you all the way to downtown Cleveland, which was 12 miles away. That just seemed like it opened whole new worlds [to me]. I would go shopping with my mother on the bus downtown, I could go to Cleveland Indians games at the stadium.
My great grandfather was a conductor on the New York Central Railroad, so I loved to hear his stories about the passenger trains and where he went on the train. My grandmother, his daughter, lived in Shaker Heights, Ohio, [near] the rapid transit line. I can remember my grandmother would take us [on the train] to go shopping downtown to get goodies. Those are my earliest influences, and without even realizing it, I was coming to appreciate what public transit can do for you.
What led you to pursue transportation in your education and career?
I went to graduate school at the University of Iowa and was in the urban and regional planning program. I needed money, and there were fellowships where I could study housing, or fellowships where I could study transportation, and those fellowships paid more money. So, I got interested in transportation as a formal course of study while I was in graduate school.
When I graduated in 1972, I began to look for jobs in transportation, which is what led me to Lancaster County, Pa., where I was hired to be the county transportation planner. I got involved in highway planning, transit planning, even a little bit of airport planning while I was there. That pretty much confirmed what I figured out in graduate school - that transportation was going to be a good career for me.
While I was there, I was asked to team up with a planner from the city planning agency to come up with recommendations for the County Commissioners because the private carrier in the area had announced that he was going out of business and was no longer going to provide fixed-route public transit service.
So very early in my career, I got handed a problem to determine whether [the county] would stop all public transit service, subsidize public transit service or start their own transit authority. Out of that work, the decision was made to create the Red Rose Transit Authority that exists today in Lancaster, Pa. I was really, really very proud of that.
Tell me about your time at PennDOT.
One of the most memorable experiences Millar had testifying before Congress was when he met then Senator Hillary Clinton in September 2008. They were both getting ready to testify before the Senate Banking Committee.
I went from [Lancaster County] to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and had been recruited to implement a new law, which created a free transit program for senior citizens. Money from the Pennsylvania lottery was set aside to pay public and private fixed-route carriers so they would let senior citizens ride free in the off-peak hours.
Ultimately, I negotiated contracts with 75 different carriers and they included, literally, a mom-and-pop operation in Uniontown, Pa., right on up to SEPTA. I really got a chance to see a broad spectrum of transit and what it meant, in all its forms. It also introduced to me how public transit might not be large in small or rural areas, but it was really important to those people because they really had no alternative.
We also worked to establish a rural public transportation assistance program, which the legislature ultimately adopted. I got to put together a small urban area transit planning program and some other programs, including setting up a statewide uniform identification program for persons with disabilities, so that as they used public transit throughout the state, they didn't have to go to each city and register again to have the privilege of using transit at half fare.
I was again very fortunate that I had very interesting assignments and very useful assignments, that to this day, continue to pay off in Pennsylvania. So, that was a really good opportunity for me.
What led you to work for a transit agency?
After being at PennDOT for four and a half years, I felt like it was important to work for a transit agency. I looked for an opportunity to work for the Port Authority of Allegheny County. They were working with Carnegie Mellon University and the local MPO to develop a plan to better serve persons with disabilities and senior citizens. ADA had not been passed yet, but the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had been passed [as well as] the UMTA law of 1970, which required transit agencies to make their programs as accessible to persons with disabilities as possible.
I was brought to Pittsburgh to implement a very innovative paratransit idea. In those days, most public transit was fixed route and very few systems — particularly in large cities - operated any kind of paratransit service.
So, we took the plan that had been worked on by others before I got there and actualized that plan to make it real. That led to the implementation in 1979 of the Access Paratransit system in Pittsburgh. It was different than most paratransit services in the country in that we used almost exclusively private-for-profit and a few private-nonprofit organizations to provide the service.
Unlike most systems, we didn't buy our own vans, we didn't hire our own drivers — we used what was already in the community. That had many benefits, not the least of which, it allowed us to save a great deal of money and encourage the private sector to compete for contracts. So, that kept the quality of service up and tended to reduce the price on those contracts.
That service is very successful, and if you went back to Pittsburgh today, you'd still see, that for big city paratransit, Access is the gold standard. We really broke a lot of ground on that project, and in fact, when the Americans with Disabilities act passed in 1990, many of the operating requirements were first tried out in Pittsburgh to see if they would work before they were put into federal regulations. Today, every day, over 6,000 persons with disabilities or senior citizens are able to move around Allegheny County and do the things they want because of that service, so I am very proud of that.