As the U.S. economy pushes into recovery mode, the transit industry continues to face numerous challenges on several fronts. That was one of the key messages heard at the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) annual meeting in Salt Lake City. The meeting, co-sponsored by the Utah Transit Authority, was held Sept. 28 to Oct. 2.
“This has been a challenging year for transit,” said Jenna Dorn, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration. Although some transit systems have had to raise fares and reduce service because of budget setbacks, Dorn told attendees that a few properties have managed to increase ridership significantly in the past year. “it’s nothing short of remarkable,” she said.
Dorn urged the audience to focus on demonstrating to politicians and community leaders the return on investment that transit creates. Partnerships with real estate developers, lenders, human service agencies and other community organizations will be critical. “Economic benefits must be part of the case we make,” Dorn said.
Roger Snoble, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), agreed with Dorn’s assessment. “It’s been a tough year,” he said during a panel discussion about the impact of the economy on transit systems. Because of flagging sales tax revenue and cutbacks in state funding, the MTA has been forced to add to its debt load. “This is a growing concern for us, the cost of borrowing,” Snoble said. “The question is, how can we balance our debt and still expand our services?”
Speaking on the same panel, Patrick Rona, president and CEO of North American Bus Industries, cited the role that product innovation can play in reinvigorating the economy. “Innovation can create opportunities that never existed before,” he said.
The need to continue to press for increased transit funding in the reauthorization of TEA 21 was also a key message heard at the meeting. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were unable to mete out a transportation bill by the Sept. 30 expiration, leading to a five-month extension of the current law. Transit officials were called upon to keep pushing their representatives in Washington, D.C., to make transit a top priority in the reauthorization.
The meeting also featured a shift of power, as Celia Kupersmith, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District in San Francisco, completed her year-long tenure as chair of APTA and handed over the reins to George F. Dixon III, president of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.