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.
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. [PAGEBREAK]
What are some of your other accomplishments during that time?
I wound up setting up the agency's grants and government relations department and had a hand in raising the hundreds of millions of dollars that were necessary to finance Pittsburgh's Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway and the West Busway. And, to do what was called the Stage 1 and Stage 2 light-rail transit programs in Pittsburgh.
After I worked on a lot of this, unfortunately, our executive director had to take a disability retirement, and the board of directors named me on an acting basis first, and then later, the executive director. And, that's the job I held for the next 13 years until I came to Washington in 1996.
In that time, we accomplished many things. With the help of a lot of good people, we were able to really rejuvenate the agency. The agency, when I took it over, was in chaos. It didn't have much credibility with the public, it was rife with political patronage, and it had a funding uncertainty that was a very difficult to manage, because it didn't have any dedicated funding at all.
I spent a lot of my time just going to local government, state government and federal government with a tin cup to try to raise the money for the operating and capital budgets that we had but the results were quite good. We completely rid [the agency] of the political patronage. I was able to root it out of everything, and we managed to deliver 13 consecutive balanced budgets despite the funding uncertainty and the craziness of the funding uncertainty.
It was a very tumultuous period but again we worked hard, had a good plan, we hired good staff, we built a lot of good public and political support and we managed to turn the situation around. By the time I left, the agency was winning awards.
I have this habit of doing things that are a little difficult, because that's what's fun, that's what's challenging.
Discuss your beginnings at APTA.
I arrived at APTA near the end of 1996; it was again a time when the industry was demoralized. Federal operating assistance was being phased out for all the systems serving areas with a population over 200,000. And in the efforts to balance the federal budget, the federal transit appropriation had been cut for several years, and people were pretty depressed when I got here. One of our early tasks was to encourage people to get out there and fight hard to improve APTA and our standing in the association community in Washington. We had to build partnerships with many other organizations so that we would be more effective in our activities on Capitol Hill.
Out of that we were able to turn the appropriations process around; we were able to grow the federal program dramatically. The first big piece of federal legislation that we helped pass after I came to APTA was in 1998, it was TEA-21. Under that particular program, we were able to grow the national program to $7.2 billion by 2003.
Again, that reinforced for me the same lessons I learned in Pennsylvania, about making good business decisions, hiring good people, building alliances with other organizations and working hard to tell our story.
How has APTA changed over the years?
One of the things that became clear to me was that we had to broaden our membership, so that as the political winds in Washington buffeted you one way or another, you could respond better. In those days, for example, business members were called associate members and they weren't full members of APTA. We worked hard with a lot of people so that business members would be full members and that APTA should broaden itself beyond just fixed-route bus and fixed-rail transit; that we should include other modes. So in 1999, we changed our bylaws to make business members full members and also to change the name of our association from the American Public Transit Association, to the American Public Transportation Association. With that, we were able to greatly broaden our scope and inclusion. I believe that they were key parts of a strategy to improve the effectiveness of APTA.
Along the way, we grew APTA membership from less than 1,100 when I arrived to over 1,550 members today. I'm very pleased that we were able to make APTA a place for many companies, transit agencies and other service providers, who felt that 'Hey, this is my home and I should be here.' Again, a key to improving our effectiveness on Capitol Hill was the ability to represent a much wider and broader constituency. That was part of the strategy, too.
We realized that we needed more resources, both to research what public transit benefits, the investment in public transit, the benefits to the nation and how we could communicate those. Out of that was born an idea that was called PT2 (Public Transportation Partnership for Tomorrow). It started out as an effort to raise funds for research, communications and hire more expertise in how to do a better job up on Capitol Hill. We raised almost $30 million for the initial five-year program. That turned out to be very successful, indeed, and ultimately, our executive committee and board voted to include a continuation of that program. They changed the name; today it's called RCA — Research, Communication and Advocacy.
How has APTA helped federal funding for public transportation?
When I arrived in 1996, the core federal appropriation for public transportation was about $3.8 billion. By 2010, that had grown to about $10.5 billion, so I was very pleased that we were able to do that. In 2009, we were well positioned when the president and the Congress decided to do a stimulus package and we were able to attract another $8.4 billion for public transportation, and of course, the $8 billion that the president pushed hard for, for high-speed and intercity rail. So, for transit the peak year was in 2009, when a combination of the stimulus funds and the regular funding got us to about $19 billion.
What were the greatest challenges you faced during your tenure as APTA's president?
There have been a number of things. APTA is a very large, diverse international organization. We have over 1,550 organizations that are members and developing consensus on public policy issues, developing programs that can be supported by such a diverse group of members is always a challenge. At APTA it's even tougher than most trade associations in that unlike most our members come from both the public and the private sectors. Needless to say, the public and the private sector often view things differently. Working hard to bring them all in under the tent and have them all look for what they have in common rather than focusing on the divisive issues, that's a very important challenge that I like to think APTA and I have handled well.
That whole issue of developing policies and programs that a wide range of members can buy into and support is the perennially difficult part of this job.
If we wanted to give an example of a very trying time at APTA, I would pick the post-9/11 era immediately following the attacks in New York and Washington and the crash in Pennsylvania. It was a time of great uncertainty for everyone in the country, there's no doubt about that. But in public transit, we knew from vast experience that public transit had been a subject of terrorist attacks so you had to only look at the IRA bombings in London, or the sarin gas attack in Tokyo in 1995, as examples. We knew and yet in the post-9/11 era particularly right after the attacks, you really didn't know what was going to happen next, and the intelligence we were being fed by the federal government was that terrorists all over the world were reacting and were going to attack public transportation.
We really had to step up our efforts and security and work with the federal government as they decided how they were going to respond to it, work with our members to take any immediate steps that they could, with the 9/11 Commission, with the Congress to develop legislation and funding to implement programs.
I remember working closely with the Transportation Research Board to immediately do some short-term, very quick research studies on documenting what are the best ways to do simple things like patrol stations, or how to set up bomb-proof waste cans, things that on one level sound kind of small, but on another level are very, very important as you seek to take the open systems that are public transit and make them as secure as possible because that's not like the airplanes and airports where you can...there's only 450 commercial airports in America, but there are tens of thousands of bus stops, train stations, places where terrorists could work their evil.
That was a very difficult time and continues to be an important issue for our industry even though most Americans really don't think about that all that much. Every so often a terrorist plot is hatched and then people think about it again. But day in, day out, 24 hours a day, transit has to be ready. So working with our members, all the different stakeholders I mentioned earlier, that's been a real challenge. [PAGEBREAK]
You have testified before Congress often. Tell me about a memorable experience you had doing that.
It was September 2008, during the presidential campaign season. I had been asked to come to the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over public transit. I was to appear before the committee to talk about how public transportation could help reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. It looked like it was going to be a pretty normal hearing. There was going to be five of us on a panel, but when I got there I noticed there were six chairs at the table where we testify. I sat down where my name was, and next to me was a vacant chair. Well, it was just about time to start the hearing, the members of the Senate Banking Committee were coming in and taking their places and all of a sudden I look next to me and in the vacant chair is Hillary Clinton. She had come to testify on this issue and was also working on legislation that would make more public transit investment available. It was just an incredible moment for me.
I had never met Senator Clinton before. Here we are, right in the middle of the presidential campaign...she had battled it out with Barack Obama. I talked with her for a couple minutes and she was just a wonderful person. Like all great politicians I've ever known, somehow when you're in their presence, they have a certain radiance and ability to just make you feel like you're the only person in the world that matters. She had that star power and that was a thrilling moment.
There were certainly many less thrilling moments in testifying before Congress. One of the most riveting pieces of testimony that I was ever able to give was, again, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. I was asked to come up to the Senate Banking Committee and then over to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House, just within a few weeks after 9/11 to testify how public transportation was being affected by those attacks and how public transportation had been instrumental in immediately assisting with recovery.
For example, I was able to tell the story of how the PATH subway that comes over from New Jersey that goes to the World Trade Center, how within minutes of the first plane hitting the first tower, they had thrown out their schedules and were immediately starting to evacuate thousands and thousands of people away from the World Trade Center before even the second plane had hit, and so that was a vivid thing. The New York City Transit Authority had the building come down and crushed the PATH station. But by the time that happened, they had already moved thousands and thousands of people. Likewise, the New York City subways went through that area and did the same thing. And immediately, the MTA and its family of services in New York City began to supply the equipment that was necessary to begin to deal with all the wreckage with the collapse of the buildings.
Another story I was able to share was when the Federal Aviation Administration and DOT Secretary Norm Mineta made the decision to bring down the airplanes all across the county. It was an amazing moment. They gave the order to land every airplane as soon as possible. That meant that tens of thousands of air passengers suddenly were in Kansas City when they meant to be in Denver or Spokane, Wash., when their destination was Chicago. The public transit systems in all those cities worked with the emergency responders to make sure that there were buses provided at the airports so that people could be taken to public shelters, to hotels or somewhere where they could meet relatives to complete their trips. To be able to share these kinds of heroic acts that folks in the public transit industry did immediately during the emergency and right after was a real privilege and an honor to be able to share those stories.
Most of the other stories, I can't tell you, because the people are still in Congress. But, there have been a lot of very interesting things. There was the time I missed the train. The train was on time but I missed it, so I was late to a hearing on Capitol Hill, and of course, the Chairman of the Committee at the time had good fun at my expense.
I have been very privileged to appear before the Congress throughout my whole career. I first testified at the Banking Committee in 1978. I have certainly been to Congress a lot of times. I have a lot of great memories. A lot of that testimony has been helpful in developing legislation, useful for the country and useful to public transit throughout the country so I feel real good about that.
How do you feel about your tenure as APTA president?
I feel like my time at APTA has been well spent. I'm very proud of the good people we've hired here, the fact that we've strengthened the association greatly with the addition of so many new members, that we do a much better job on the basics of researching, communicating and working up on the Hill, and that we are a much more inclusive organization than we were when I arrived.
You know there would always be more you could do, but I think I've had a very good record here.
Along the way, I was able to keep my hands in a number of areas that I'm proud of. For example, I have been active in the Transportation Research Board for my entire career. I had served as their chairman in 1992. Before that, working with APTA, I was able to lead a group of people that did a study in the mid-1980s about the importance of research in public transportation. Out of that work, in 1991, we were able to get included in ISTEA, a provision that created the Transit Cooperative Research Program, TCRP, which continues to this day and enables us to invest about $10 million a year in research in practical problems that make the transit systems in America better. That literally has resulted in over 500 different research projects.
We also worked a lot on workforce development issues and did a lot to reach out to universities, and I've served on several boards of universities, universities' transportation centers, and things of that sort to help encourage research and train the next generations of people that work in our industry.
Along with that we've greatly expanded our APTA Foundation, where we grant scholarships, primarily to college students who later we hope will enter the public transit industry. And, we tried to make public transit more relevant to people in their lives, so that even people that might not be able to use transit every day have an appreciation for what it does.
We did a lot of different things there, certainly all of our activities and PT2 were part of that, but there are some lesser-known things that we did that I'm proud of. At the Smithsonian National Museum of American History here in Washington, if you were to go to the transportation exhibit you'd see the name American Public Transportation Association, because we along with some other associations helped fund the brand new transportation exhibit at the Smithsonian. The millions of people that go through the museum every year, they see public transportation portrayed in a better light than they otherwise would have.
We've done similar things at the National Building Museum to help people understand how whether you take the train or bus, or not, public transit helps communities and is important.
With all this activity, after 15 years, which it will be to the day when I leave at midnight on Halloween, I feel like we've done a lot. Of course, no one person does it, a lot of people worked on it, a lot of people made a difference. But, I feel like I did a good job in my role of leading the effort.
After 40 years, it feels like it's time to stick my head up above the horizon and see what else there is to do out there, but obviously I'll always have a great love for public transit and for APTA and all that it means.
What do you foresee for the future of public transportation?
I'm very optimistic about public transportation. Now, maybe things are particularly bad right at the moment, but I've been around long enough to remember the early 1980s when the Reagan administration was trying to phase out the public transit programs altogether. APTA membership pulled together, pushed hard, supported each other, and ultimately, we were able to save the program. Yeah, it shrunk for a while, but ultimately we were able to grow it back bigger and stronger than ever.
The fundamental trends in America favor public transportation. The Census Bureau tells us that there will be 100 million more Americans over the next 40 years. That means the country's going to grow by almost a third, most of those people, about 80 percent, are going to settle in metropolitan areas. That means even metropolitan areas today that think they are too small or too low density to support much public transit, are going to need it tomorrow. And just like many of the southern and western cities such as Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City or Los Angeles, or other cities that only thought they would ever have the automobile, but today have very robust and growing public transit systems. I think that's going to happen in more and more places around the country. So, you have the general population trends, hopefully a growing economy again, urbanization, and concern for the environment and the nation's energy resources. Certainly, public transit is part of the answer to reducing our reliance on unstable and expensive foreign oil, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change. For many people, public transit will always be that first step on the economic ladder of the great American dream. All those trends, it seems to me, mean a good future for public transit. There will be bumps along the road. There will be many efforts to put us on a sidetrack, but if we keep our vision clear and straight, and are smart about what we do and never give up, then I think the future of public transit is very bright indeed.
I entered public transit in 1972. The lowest ridership in public transit occurred in 1973. There were only a little over six billion rides given on public transit. This year, we will have almost 11 billion. Many times over that period people who rode public transit often said it was no good, outmoded and who needed it, but we've kept at it, and we almost doubled the ridership in that time. I think with the trends I outlined to you, the ridership will double much more quickly next time.
What are you going to take away from your experience? What has the public transportation industry given back to you?
Enormous satisfaction. Great friendships. This is an industry that is full of people who are interesting, friendly, concerned for their fellow citizens and just fun to be with. So, certainly, I've made many friendships that I expect to last long beyond my time at APTA. Also through my career, I've come to really see and understand how government works in America and how it can be a force for good. Whether you're talking about the federal, state or local government, I've seen how peoples' lives are better because of the investments that have been made in public transportation. I have a lot of great memories.
One thing that I'm very proud of: every weekday in America, about 35 million times, Americans board public transportation vehicles. I go home every day and I know I had a little bit to do with every one of those rides. Those are people that went to work that day, they went to school that day, they went to church, they visited their family, they did whatever it is they wanted to do to make their life better. Public transit had a hand in it, and I had a hand in public transit. I walk away feeling good about what has been accomplished and very optimistic about the future.
What are your plans once you leave? Do you have some favorite pastimes?
The first thing I'm going to do is sleep in on November 1 — that I can assure you. The second thing I'm going to do is enjoy the holiday period. I haven't been able to enjoy the holidays without much responsibility for 40 years, so I'm looking forward to spending it with my family and enjoying it thoroughly.
I do have many interests. I particularly like to sail, to motorboat and hope to use my boats a lot more than I have been able to in the last few years. My wife and I are looking forward to traveling to interesting places. This job is full of travel, but I never want to get on another 6:00 a.m. flight to go to a 7:00 a.m. meeting somewhere. When we travel, it will be on a little bit different terms than historically I've done.
Also, I have an interest in a number of social issues that I hope to follow up on. I hope to become more involved in environmental issues than I've been able to be in the past. I've always been interested in teaching, and I probably will continue to do some lecturing, maybe on occasion, at some universities or elsewhere. I'm sure there is no shortage of things that need to be done, or that I'll want to do, but I hope to do them much more on my terms.