Behind the sustained drumbeat for increased investment in transit through the reauthorization of TEA 21 is the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). And behind APTA is its president, Bill Millar, who has been at the helm of the association since 1996.
Millar has high hopes for 2004 in several areas affecting the transit industry, including the reauthorization legislation, security enhancements, the renewal of the association‘s five-year strategic plan and procurement reform.
METRO Publisher Frank Di Giacomo, a member of APTA’s Business Members Board of Governors, recently spoke with Millar about the state of the industry and his predictions for the rest of the year.
How is 2004 shaping up for the transit industry?
Bill Millar: It should be a pretty good year for the industry. I say that for several reasons. One, the economy is improving, which should increase ridership. Two, we’ve already had a very successful new rail line open in Houston, and more are scheduled, including one in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Minneapolis and Little Rock, Ark. And three, we are hopeful that Congress will work to get us a great reauthorization bill that invests in transit. If all those kinds of things happen, I think we’ll have a very good year.
Let’s talk about APTA and your priorities for 2004.
Our absolute top priority won’t surprise you. It’s the reauthorization of TEA 21. We want a good solid six-year bill that dramatically grows the program and retains the good features out of the current legislation, such as the funding guarantees and the funding ratios.
Beyond that, APTA will continue to work on its multiyear priorities, which include our (PT)2 [Public Transportation Partnership for Tomorrow] program to continue to produce good information about the benefits of public transportation investments and work to change the perception of public transit around the country.
We’ll also be working on a new five-year strategic plan for APTA. A lot of our members are involved in that process. Of course, some of the activities we’ve undertaken in recent years with the strong support of our members include the procurement initiative, the setting of standards for the industry, continuing to work on security issues to make sure that the industry is as safe as it can be. Those are all going to be high priority activities in the coming year.
Sounds like you have a lot on your plate.
Yes, we have a lot of things going on, but they’re all good things. Some people would look at that list and ask how we can work on all those things at once. If you start to think about it, some of them can be paired together for example, TEA 21 reauthorization and (PT)2. The strategic plan is a once-every-five-year activity inside APTA. And the last three procurement, standards and security are all ongoing initiatives that our members have told us are really important in order to make progress for the health of the industry. So it’s a lot on the plate, but it’s all valuable stuff. And all of it has strong support from our members. That’s what allows us to do it.
What are your plans for (PT)2 once the reauthorization is approved?
(PT)2 was originally envisioned as a five-year effort, but discussions are underway as to whether this should be long term. By the way, we are in the third year of that five-year effort, and so, in any event, even the initial effort has a couple of years to run.
So far, (PT)2 has been very successful. The tracking polls and other indicators suggest that our message is getting out there and being well received. And our members, the acid test, continue to pay the pledges and assessments that support (PT)2, so I think that’s very good news indeed.
Dave Turney, the new vice chair for marketing at APTA, has stated his priority over the next year is to figure out what the long-term future is for (PT)2. Does it continue in its current form? Does it change in some way? Are there activities that we want to continue, but others that maybe we don’t? But so far it has worked very, very well for us.
What can and should transit agencies be doing at this point to support a transit-friendly reauthorization?
The most important thing for members to do is to continue to work with their elected officials and the interested groups in their communities. They should also be working with employees, riders, suppliers, local elected officials, the media and anyone who can help to get the message to the Congress that this is a high-priority piece of legislation.
We are encouraging our members to visit their representatives in Congress and to invite them to visit their business if they are a business member or their transit property if they are a transit member. It’s important that members of Congress see how we’ve been using the money to create jobs in their communities and to improve transit service. The whole community benefits when you see an expansion of public transportation.
We don’t maintain any kind of political action committee. It’s strictly a public interest approach, and it’s worked well for us in the past, and we believe it’s working well now. We also encourage our members to take all our (PT)2 material and modify it as needed for their local story.
Even if the reauthorization is approved and provides some healthy increases, many transit systems will continue to struggle financially in 2004 because of local and state funding problems. Any thoughts on how APTA can provide support to these beleaguered agencies?
We’ve been providing support in many ways. Again, I go back to (PT)2. Quite a large number of our members are taking the materials for (PT)2 and modifying them for local usage.
For example, the Kansas City (Mo.) Area Transportation Authority and the supporters of its tax lobby issue last fall took the (PT)2 ads, modified them to be more specific to Kansas City and used them as part of a very successful campaign in which voters actually approved a tax increase to support public transit.
I also maintain a very heavy travel schedule going around the country helping our members get the message out about the importance of transit, and we always are happy to work with our members on local and state issues that are important to them. So there are lots of different ways that we can help.
As a member of APTA’s strategic planning committee, I’m aware of its history but why don’t you tell us how it got started?
It’s one of the innovations I brought to APTA. I arrived here in late 1996 and realized that APTA had never really done a strategic plan for itself. Over the next couple of years, with the strong support of APTA leadership, particularly [past chairs] Shirley DeLibero and John Bartosiewicz, we were able to define what the goals of APTA should be and what sort of strategies we should be using to meet those goals.
Over the last five years I found that to be a very effective tool as we developed different plans and programs that our members have benefited from.
The initial plan covered from 2000 to 2004, so it’s time to redo and renew. That’s what we’re doing right now.
What’s the timeline on getting that done?
We hope to have it in shape so that it can be presented to our board of directors for adoption when they meet at our annual meeting in Atlanta this fall. In the meantime, we are in the “diagnostics” phase that is, what do people think about APTA, what do our members think, what do they like, what would they like to see changed, what do they think will be the issues we face over the next five years. At all of the APTA spring meetings, we’ll be holding listening sessions among our members to take their input. Then we’ll be producing a draft plan that we’ll widely distribute to our members for input. We hope to have a good draft plan late in the summer that the board of directors will feel comfortable with in Atlanta.
Tell us a little about APTA’s involvement in the development of standards.
Standards development has grown dramatically in the last several years at APTA. It started out as an effort among commuter rail members primarily, and then it moved into rail transit standards. Now we publish dozens and dozens of standards. A wide cross-section of our membership has been involved in these, and not only on the transit provider side, many of our business members are starting to get involved.
It’s an important area because it fits in with things like our procurement initiative and our efforts to improve safety and security.
Since you brought it up, what’s the latest in procurement reform?
APTA’s procurement task force is continuing to work on this. Of course, one of the big things we produced last year was a procurement guide for transit board members so they can better understand their role in the whole procurement situation. This year we are going to be producing a similar guide for general managers.
We also are continuing to work with groups like the National Transit Institute to develop training programs so that the folks in our industry have the latest and best information available to them as they develop their procurement programs.
We also continue to work on particular problems that arise from time to time. For example, right now the whole issue of security bonds and performance bonds is very important because, in general, insurance markets are very tight and many of our business members are having great difficulty getting the kinds of bonds they need to respond to the procurements that our transit members support now. Those are the kinds of issues I think will continue for some time to come.
You mentioned security earlier...
Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life. That’s going to be with us for as long as you and I can imagine. Earlier this week, as a matter of fact, Dick White, the general manager at WMATA [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] who is also the chair of APTA’s executive committee task force on security, and I met with David Stone, the new acting administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Admiral Stone is brand new on his job, and we had a chance to introduce him to the transit industry and explain what it’s all about and what our needs are. We told him what the industry has been doing to counter terrorism threats and what more we could do if proper federal funding were made available.
We need to continue to work closely with the agencies responsible, particularly the TSA but also other parts of the Department of Homeland Security and, of course, our friends at the FTA and the FRA [Federal Railroad Administration].
You mentioned the roles of the TSA and FTA in transit security. Do you know which agency is going to be working most closely with the transit industry?
Certainly a federal policy on security is evolving; there is no question about that. The Congress has been giving very clear responsibilities to the TSA, and yet we’ve argued to the TSA that we have a long-standing relationship with FTA. If there is going to be federal money for security, most transit systems already have a good relationship with FTA in the grant-making process, so why not see if we couldn’t fund some of the money through FTA grants? But, on the other hand, we need to make sure that what’s done in the transit industry is consistent with what they are doing in other parts of the transportation sector. We don’t think that it’s a matter that one administration is in competition with another; we just think that different administrations within the Bush administration have different strengths and we have to play to those strengths.
Ridership has been down, mainly because of economic factors. Do you see that cycling back this year?
History tells us that when the economy begins to come back, transit ridership begins to come back. Transit ridership, like employment, is a trailing economic indicator. It usually tells you what’s already happened rather than what is. Many are predicting that the news on jobs is going to get better throughout the year. I would expect transit ridership to get better.
We are beginning to see some bright spots in our quarterly reports, and some places where ridership is really starting to take off again. So I’m hopeful that becomes a broader trend in 2004.
Many of our members rely on either locally dedicated taxes or appropriations from state and local government, so we certainly hope that as the economy brightens, that state and local finances will brighten. Because even if ridership builds, if the other components of the budget don’t go as well, our members will have difficulty meeting the higher ridership level, too. I don’t want to be overly optimistic, but we do see signs of the economy turning around and as the economy improves, that should bring better financial results and better ridership results for our members.