Developing and sustaining both the political consensus and the financing for major public transport investments in an increasingly competitive climate for federal dollars was the theme of a day-long symposium at the recent Rail-Volution conference in Pasadena, Calif.
The theme is particularly timely given the growing gap between what the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has allowed into the bus and rail New Start project development "pipeline" and the available funding. By the FTA's own calculation, the gap is more than $19 billion at present.
As financial adviser Jeffrey Parker put it during the symposium, "It is a time to be concerned about mortgaging the future. We've been borrowing and have the capacity to borrow some more — the question is, at what rate does the program have to grow so that we have sufficient obligation authority to meet future capital needs after paying debt service?"
Conference attendees heard the experiences and advice of four panels of experts. In the opening session, Robert Grow, founder of model grassroots advocacy group Envision Utah, discussed how many communities around the country, beginning with his own in Salt Lake City, have used visioning exercises in an outreach process to build support for rail and bus rapid transit long-range plan and financing referenda. "This process must be bottom up," he said, noting that the highly successful Envision Utah took more than a decade before it resulted in approval of a 20-year expansion of public transport, including more light rail, new commuter rail service and bus rapid transit lines throughout greater Salt Lake City.
Initially, Grow said, the regional planning body was not really involved in the process, but later joined the effort and now is a full partner in subsequent iterations of the long-range plan. "It's important that the process be viewed as not being driven by anybody's agenda," he added.
There was also an exchange on how to deal with critics of these projects in the community. In a mock radio talk show, Janette Sadhik-Khan, senior vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff and a symposium co-sponsor, moderated a debate between Paul Jablonski, CEO of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, and Beverly Scott, CEO of Sacramento Regional Transit District.
Scott portrayed a transit critic, seizing on the most potent argument against transit: after a decade-and-a-half of accelerated federal investment, the percentage of those using it has actually gone down. Although Jablonski answered with the only defense possible — that transit no longer can be all things to all people, but can be very important to some, if not many — Scott's critique served as an exercise for the panels on innovative financing, dealing with the revised New Starts process and technology choice.
The innovative finance panel of which Parker was a part provided an example of this. He and Robin Blair, manager of development for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Jack Limber, chief counsel for the San Diego Association of Governments, pointed out that a thorough understanding of goals, realistic potential, other funding sources and project timetable were necessary before a useful discussion with commercial developer could even begin. The need to demonstrate "wallets and eyeballs," the mantra of retail development, was a refrain used by all of these experts in this session.