The future is now for public transit

APTA president comments on the state of the industry

By Michael Melaniphy
APTA President and CEO

American Public Transportation Association President and CEO Michael Melaniphy covered a lot of ground in his first state-of-the-industry address, emphasizing the necessity for the U.S. to invest heavily in its overall transportation infrastructure to maintain a state of good repair and prepare for the future.

According to the Federal Transit Administration, it will take $78 billion simply to address existing public transit infrastructure needs. Assuming a 3.53 percent annual growth in ridership, a total of $60 billion is required annually for capital needs.

Melaniphy says the current level of federal funding does not even begin to address the country’s infrastructure needs.
“Since the economic downturn in 2008, many public transit systems have been negatively affected by stagnant or declining state and local revenue,” says Melaniphy. “With less revenue from local and state taxes and less revenue from fares, many public transit systems have had to cut service, raise fares or do both. The economic recession impacted our private sector members as well.”

Melaniphy says passing federal legislation in 2012 must be the number one priority of the industry.

“Short-term extensions are stifling our industry for both public and private sectors and are not sustainable solutions,” he says. “We need to plan for the future to maintain and expand public transportation.

Melaniphy pointed to the success of APTA EXPO 2012 in October to exemplify recent growth and strength of the public transit industry, noting the almost 15,000 attendees and nearly 800 exhibitors as the highest number to date.

Public transportation is vital to the lives of millions of Americans and offers an attractive alternative to driving. Demographics show that people of all ages, all incomes, and all walks of life utilize public transportation for daily activities. What is even more significant, according to Melaniphy, is that more people now understand the importance of public transportation.

“The image of public transportation has positively changed thanks to the good work of everyone in the industry,” he says. “Twelve years ago APTA launched Public Transportation Partnership for Tomorrow (PT2), which later changed to Research, Communications, and Advocacy (RCA ). APTA research in national media stories, advertising, grassroots efforts, and public transportation has made public transit part of the national dialogue. Through APTA’s ongoing legislative education process, we are at the table when Congress and the Administration work on transportation issues.”

Melaniphy says every year local and state public transportation ballot initiatives come up for vote. “In 2011 public transit ballot initiatives passed by a whopping 79 percent; since 2000 transit-oriented ballot measures have passed by a resounding 73 percent,” he says. “Americans believe in public transportation and want to invest in it — Democrats and Republicans alike.”
He is careful to note this success has not been altogether smooth.

“According to the U.S. Census 2009 American Housing Survey, nearly half of all American households have no access to public transportation,” he says. “As a country we need to invest more in public transportation so that millions more Americans have access to public transit services.”

However, Melaniphy points to signs that suggest the economy improved in 2011.

“What is particularly striking to me is that despite severe financial challenges, public transit ridership rose three quarters in a row in 2011 for the first time in three years,” he says. “Perhaps public transportation is showing that the economy is starting to come back. Nearly 60 percent of the trips on public transportation are for work commutes.”

He says the ridership increases may very well be a barometer that a more positive economic climate is emerging, and the industry needs to be ready for the demand that will occur as employment figures rise.

He sees long-term trends favoring public transit and he encourages Congress to quickly enact a well-funded, multi-year surface transportation bill. Melaniphy says the public transportation industry is poised to start new projects as soon as funding is available.

“We are ready now,” he says. “The longer we wait for federal legislation to pass, the more costly it will be to update our infrastructure, build new projects, manufacture new vehicles, and create new jobs. We continue to be disappointed that Congress is not adequately investing in our country’s infrastructure needs. However, we are very appreciative of the access that we do have on the Hill to our nation’s federal leaders. They meet with us, listen to us, and overall, we have bipartisan support. In fact, our industry is one of the few that enjoys bipartisan support.”

A growing population and increased congestion are not the only long-term trends driving future demand for public transportation. Transit-oriented development is revitalizing communities as more people of all ages move back into urban areas and seek a lifestyle with easy public transit access.

Some of the biggest supporters of public transportation are young people who not only like public transportation, but are also concerned about the environment and take a bus or train to reduce their carbon footprint. Amazingly, driving a car is no longer a must do for younger people. Some recent statistics show that in 1978, 86 percent of 18 year olds had driving licenses, but in 2008, only 68 percent of 18 year olds had driving licenses.

Also our country’s population is aging as people are living longer. Public transportation needs to be available to older Americans who choose not to drive or cannot drive any longer.

Technology is taking public transportation to the next level. Technology is demystifying and transforming the rider experience. No one has to wonder when the next bus or train will arrive. Riders are staying connected with public transit through mobile devices. Fare payment is becoming seamless.

”Investment in public transportation not only provides access to jobs, but is a proven job creator,” says Melaniphy. “Every $1 billion invested in public transportation creates and supports 36,000 jobs. And finally, the public transportation industry is a $55 billion industry supporting 1.9 million jobs.”

He says workforce development is a top priority for 2012 and the years to come. BR