My crystal ball for this coming year looks more like a snow globe. I can see some things that look really promising, but they are sometimes obscured by competing demands. In 2008 we learned that there was truth in the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.” Many a transit manager has dreamt of the day when gas prices would soar and transit agencies would be swamped with throngs of new riders clamoring to take advantage of the benefits of public transportation. This past year it actually happened and as many of us found out, there were many challenges associated with meeting that demand.
2009 brings us a new administration with new staff, initiatives and priorities. Investment in American infrastructure appears to be a high priority and that should be good for public transportation. However, the slowing economy is likely to result in lower tax receipts. This is expected to put a strain on transit agency budgets and their local share capital match money in the short-term.
In 2009 new federal legislation that will replace the current SAFETEA-LU program is expected to be drafted, debated and hopefully enacted. The program enhancements currently being discussed have the potential to take public transportation to an entirely new plane in the coming years. This could provide a significant boost to both the public and private sides of our industry. We must all do our part to participate in the development and support of this new legislation. Despite local budget pressures, we can expect to see resurgence in participation in local, regional and national public transportation associations as an effective way to make our collective voices heard in Washington, D.C.
In the near term, we can expect public transportation to build a strong case for the expansion of capacity in both the core and expansion market segments based upon the dramatic lessons learned in 2008. We have already seen solid evidence of this with the passage of the vast majority of new transit oriented tax initiatives put before the voters this past November. Citizens “Get it”. Investing in public transportation pays significant dividends across a broad spectrum of our economy both locally and nationally. Effective public transportation systems can improve the quality of life within each of our communities; be they urban, suburban or rural.
Individual transit agencies will continue to burnish their images during this renaissance period and the vehicles they select will play a significant role in that process. We can expect hybrid technology to continue to gain market share. Transit has proven to be a perfect application for these environmentally friendly vehicles. Vehicle styling will continue to be an important factor as will the ability to move large quantities of passengers more efficiently. In 2008 we saw suburban ridership soar at double digit growth rates. These results have proven that there is an underserved market in the outlying suburbs. As a result, we can expect to see an increased demand for suburban style coaches specifically targeted at this market segment in 2009 and beyond. MCI’s selection of clean diesel and hybrid electric commuter coaches has proven to be well suited for this demanding application.
2009 is going to be a year where Congress and the industry put in place an array of building blocks upon which public transportation will grow and flourish for many years to come.
Michael Melaniphy is Vice President Public Sector for Motor Coach Industries, Inc, with responsibility for public transportation, military, university, law enforcement and international markets. Prior to joining MCI in 2001, Mr. Melaniphy had an 11-year career managing transit agencies.