Bill Millar's Exit Interview: APTA's Chief Signs Off

Posted on October 10, 2011 by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

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Rallying a sizable crowed in Olympia, Wash., celebrating Intercity Transit and APTA's recognition of the system as the best mid-sized system in the nation in 2009.
Rallying a sizable crowed in Olympia, Wash., celebrating Intercity Transit and APTA's recognition of the system as the best mid-sized system in the nation in 2009.
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.

With Secretary Ray LaHood between sessions at the 2010 Western High Speed Rail Alliance meeting. 
With Secretary Ray LaHood between sessions at the 2010 Western High Speed Rail Alliance meeting. 
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.

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