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

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

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Millar, pictured here at the 2009 Annual Meeting in Orlando, Fla., began his career as a county transportation planner in Lancaster, Pa.
Millar, pictured here at the 2009 Annual Meeting in Orlando, Fla., began his career as a county transportation planner in Lancaster, Pa.
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. 

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