Management & Operations

An Industry Transformed

Posted on October 1, 2004

Federal Funding
When most people think of the word innovation, they think of great inventions, new technology or advancements in science or industry. Few think of government! However, when it comes to public transportation, and particularly federal involvement in public transit in the U.S. in the 20th century, innovation might be an appropriate word. The first half of the 20th century saw the real growth of mass transportation with the development of private streetcar and bus companies in American cities. The second half of that same century witnessed the conversion of these private assets to public transit authorities throughout the country. The development that made that possible in all but the largest cities was the participation of federal funding of public transit. Several key milestones stand out in this period, but it all started in 1964, when Congress passed the first Urban Mass Transportation Act, which provided funds for cities to purchase the assets of failing private transit companies and continued to provide funding to pay for at first two-thirds and later 80% of eligible capital expenses. In 1974, operating assistance was added that has since been eliminated for cities over 200,000 in population. (To substitute for this, preventive maintenance funding was added in 1998.) In 1982, Congress first provided a portion of the federal gas tax to go into the Mass Transit Account to be a dedicated source of funds for transit investments. And in 1991, the historic ISTEA was passed and signed into law, which gave significant powers to local MPOs to decide whether to spend flexible funds on either highways or transit. TEA 21, the authorizing legislation passed in 1996 (and the current law because of various extensions), added the important idea of “guaranteed” funding levels. So, with all of these federal support “innovations” to choose from, which one should be listed as the most important? It would be hard to overlook the historic 1964 UMT Act which first brought federal funding to transit. But of all the changes since that time, perhaps the most important would be ISTEA, which saw local planning organizations for the first time given real authority to decide where federal funds should be used. Since ISTEA, we have seen increasing amounts of flexible funds used for public transit, and as congestion continues to clog our urban areas, I suspect we will see this trend continue in the future. DICK RUDDELL
The T
Fort Worth, Texas

The automobile

The most important public transportation innovation in the last 100 years is, ironically, the automobile — its effect on transit as well as its perception among the public. In the early 1900s, the car was perceived as an environmental asset, replacing horses and their by-products in our cities. The love affair with the car, the creation of the interstate freeway system and the rapid suburbanization of our cities has had profound impacts on public transit during the past century. Toward the end of the period, the public now perceives the car as a prime degrader of the environment. Paradoxically, while opinion polling shows high regard for transit expansion over highway expansion, the public continues to buy bigger, cooler and more expensive cars than ever. JONI EARL
Sound Transit

Clean Air Act

Perhaps the best example of an issue that has driven innovation, diversification and technology progress in the transit market is the Clean Air Act of 1990 and its subsequent effects on emissions. The application of stringent emissions regulations on urban buses has driven the marketplace to alternative fuels technologies, cleaner diesel engines and fuels, advanced combustion technologies, complex catalytic aftertreatment and a renewed interest in the sustainable technology of fuel cells. Placing the burden of achieving these revolutionary changes in emissions on a small sector of the heavy commercial automotive industry is still an issue that causes contentious discussion. Some said that making transit the technology trailblazer for clean heavy-duty vehicles removed the focus and resources from our business. Others saw that challenge as a way to stimulate a faltering industry and create a dramatic pulling effect on the much larger commercial sector of the heavy-duty industry. I believe that the latter were correct. We have evolved not just the transit industry, but the entire automotive marketplace. The hard work and innovation that were required to meet the emissions regulations have brought the technologies of CNG, clean diesel, hybrid electric, EGR and advanced aftertreatment to the point where they are commercially viable and widely available in non-transit applications. The days of buses belching plumes of black smoke are just a memory. The benefits to our industry as a result of these pioneering efforts are still being discovered. However, the work is not done. The challenges of 2007 and 2010 raise the technology bar even higher, but this time we are not alone. The standards we must achieve are equal for the commercial heavy-duty trucking market as well. This combination of efforts will result in a fairer sharing of the burden for all in the marketplace, giving urban transit an opportunity to find better ways to serve our customers. JOHN WALSH
Chief Maintenance Officer
MTA New York City Transit
Department of Buses

Private bus achievements

In the nearly 50 years since Rosa Parks opted not to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Ala., a watershed moment in American history, the motorcoach industry has experienced many defining moments that have enhanced service, safety and presence for the private bus industry within the entire transportation community. Just as Rosa Parks demonstrated the importance of inclusion, members of the private bus industry have been instrumental in providing safe, affordable service for all riders, including members of the community with disabilities. With help from Congress, members of the industry have begun to equip their motorcoaches with wheelchair lifts and securements and plan to equip even more in the years to come. More recently, the industry dealt with attempts by regulators to completely rework the hours-of-service rules that apply to bus drivers. This would have profoundly affected the way the industry serves its customers. However, long ago, members of the private motorcoach industry made a commitment to safety, and today, the industry continues to be recognized, awarded and acknowledged as being the safest form of commercial passenger transportation. That recognition led to a decision to preserve the existing hours-of-service rules. And finally, the private motorcoach industry has made great strides in the public policy arena. In providing legislative solutions, the industry is a consideration instead of an afterthought. Legislation has enabled the industry to protect private operators from unfair transit competition, recieve grant monies, become partners in intermodal facilities and take part in solving rural transportation issues, just to name a few. And after Sept. 11, 2001, decision-makers recognized the critical link motorcoaches make in the transportation chain by acknowledging the need to help the industry and financially addressing the security challenges the private motorcoach industry faces along with other modes of transportation. The last century has been incredibly exciting for the private motorcoach industry. For many operators today, they are running the same company that their father’s father started. And with the enhancements, improvements and innovations in the industry taking place today, these operators‘ children’s children will have much to talk about in the next 100 years. PETER PANTUSO
American Bus Association
Washington, D.C.

Improved accessibility

Innovations such as wheelchair lifts, kneeling buses, onboard LEDs and route annunciators are opening public transit’s doors to millions of blind, deaf and mobility-impaired Americans. This takes on great importance when you consider the advancing age of the baby boom generation. By investing in bus and rail accessibility today, we’re keeping them on the go well into their golden years. GARY THOMAS
President/Executive Director
Dallas Area Rapid Transit

Trolley’s legacy

The San Diego Trolley, just 23 years old, is credited with helping start a renaissance of light rail transit in the United States. It was the country’s first post-World War II light rail transit system. Delivered on time and within its $86 million budget, the much admired and emulated system was considered a transportation breakthrough. The trolley was the first self-service, barrier-free, proof-of-payment fare collection system in the U.S. This saved costs by eliminating the need for ticket sales personnel and facilities. Random fare inspection is another innovation that has been widely copied. “San Diego Trolley has surprisingly few employees [about 400] running a large transit system,” says Peter Tereschuck, president and general manager of the trolley. “The trolley is run like a private business, maintaining a bottom-line mentality.” It remains one of the most cost-efficient rail systems anywhere. The trolley consistently achieves one of the highest farebox recovery rates of any transit system since its inception of service in 1981. Over the last three fiscal years, the farebox recovery rates, as verified by outside auditors, were 56.6%, 59.3% and 59.7%, respectively. In 1981, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board decided to create a wholly-owned subsidiary to operate and maintain the trolley on its behalf. This had not been done before, and it afforded the opportunity to run a public transit network in a way to maximize efficiency. The trolley used proven, off-the-shelf technology while contracting out many functions that are normally performed by staff. The San Diego Trolley pioneered innovations from the beginning with its integration and shared right-of-way with the railroad and community traffic. It has served the disabled community well with complete accessibility from the start. New low-floor cars will enhance the system even further. Smart card technology is on the way, and an award-winning Website provides instant online trip planning. The trolley handles more than 125 special service events a year and has become a special event service-planning model for other systems. San Diego is the only NFL city that has light rail transit delivering fans to the stadium gates. It carried more than 1 million people in a four-day period during Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003, and it is now carrying nearly 30% of the baseball game attendees to the newly opened downtown PETCO Park. Opening with 16 miles of track, the trolley has grown from seven different extensions to 48 miles and will soon grow to 52.5 miles with the opening of the Mission Valley East extension, making it one of the largest light rail systems in the U.S. in terms of track. The highlight of this extension is a 4,000-foot-long tunnel, the first on the system, and a multi-level station 60 feet beneath the campus of San Diego State University. With 100,000 riders a day, the San Diego Trolley is continuing its innovative course and its legacy of connecting people to places throughout the San Diego region. NANCY IRWIN
Manager, Advertising and Communications
San Diego Metropolitan Transit System

Government subsidy

In my view, the most profound transit innovation of the past century was the emergence of widespread government subsidization of public transportation in the U. S. In the decades following World War II, increasing levels of auto ownership and the transition from urban to suburban housing pushed public transportation, which had often been only marginally profitable, to the brink of bankruptcy in many communities. Local and state governments, and eventually the federal government, stepped in to prop up the failing enterprises, and by the 1970s virtually every transit system in the U. S. was being subsidized to some degree. Without taxpayer support, public transportation would have disappeared in many cities, and the industry as we know it today would simply not exist. HUGH A. MOSE
General Manager
Centre Area Transportation Authority
State College, Pa

Environmental justice

One of the most exciting, innovative projects the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has advanced in its proud 30-year history is the soon-to-be completed New York Avenue-Florida Avenue-Gallaudet Metrorail station in northeast Washington, D.C., and its focus on development-oriented transit. When it opens in the fall of 2004, this new Metro station will not only provide public transportation to and from this section of the nation’s capital, it will spur the development of the land to its highest and best use. In a community littered with abandoned warehouses and burnt-out, boarded-up buildings, and where the poverty rate is more than 40% above the citywide average, public transportation will attract better business, job opportunities and redevelopment. This development-oriented transit project offers the opportunity to bring environmental justice to a historically underserved neighborhood. Fittingly, the New York Avenue-Florida Avenue-Gallaudet Metrorail station is a project of firsts:

  • It is the first to be funded with an innovative financing program in which private dollars are leveraged with funding from the federal government and the District of Columbia.
  • Its financing has been hailed as a model for public/private partnerships.
  • It is the first Metrorail station that used a design/build best value contracting approach.
  • It is also the first “in-fill” station (a station built between two currently operating stations) in Metrorail’s 28-year history. At the New York Avenue station, WMATA, the federal and District of Columbia governments, private entities, businesses and the residents of this neighborhood are generating community and economic development by implementing one of the most innovative planning tools in public transportation. RICHARD A. WHITE
    CEO/General Manager
    Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
    Washington, D.C.

    Smaller buses

    Since 1995, we’ve been able to expand service to local colleges and avoid fare increases and service reductions due to the contributions of the manufacturers and distributors of light- and medium-duty buses over the past 30 years. These buses allow us to offer passengers flexible, seamless, efficient and convenient service that complements our passenger load requirements. Even in tough financial times, due to the low cost of purchasing these buses, we are able to secure sufficient capital replacement funds from federal, state and local government. MARC ADELMAN
    Transportation Services Director
    Danville (Va.) Transit

    ITS initiatives

    One of the most significant technology innovations was the use of what are now called intelligent transportation systems (ITS) initiatives. The one I would like to focus on is the use of automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems, which now use global positioning system (GPS) technology to improve safety and service to our ridership. The system implemented at Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) in Columbus equips a dispatcher with a computer system that presents graphical representations of all vehicle locations and schedule performance. Through the use of on-board computers and text messaging, operators can more efficiently communicate their status while still having an option to switch over to voice communications. Prior to the introduction of this technology, dispatchers were limited to radio communications with COTA operators who verbally indicated their status and location. From a technical perspective, the system is fully integrated with the Franklin County trunk group radio system and utilizing GPS technology. The system tracks the location of every bus and service vehicle in the fleet — which allows COTA to operate more safely and provide improved on-time service in order to:
  • provide dispatch assistance in the event of an accident or other emergency
  • monitor adherence to schedules
  • provide accurate arrival times to special tracking devices (kiosks and/or variable message signs) Soon after the system was brought online, it played a critical role in providing emergency assistance to a COTA operator who had a heart attack — and probably saved his life! RON BARNES
    Central Ohio Transit Authority
    Columbus, Ohio
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