Annual Conference Provides Broad Perspectives

The South West Transit Annual Conference and Expo kicked off Sunday with a Super Bowl party sponsored by Veolia Transportation. Educational sessions began Monday morning and of course a re-occurring theme was money: saving money and getting funding.

The American Public Transportation Association's Chief of Staff Petra Mollet spoke on the state of the nation and transit from a national perspective.  She said there couldn't be a better time for this discussion because APTA and its members are gearing up to shape a new federal surface transportation bill. For 2014, it is APTA's top priority, she stated.

In December, the board unanimously approved surface transportation authorization recommendations (view here). Those recommendations weren't broad aspirations, Mollet said, but based on hard facts. 

While APTA is busy relaying information to Congress and its members, they've also been spending a lot of time with coalition partners, "because we can't do this alone," she stressed. They've been working with chambers of commerces and associations that represent cities, local governments and state governments, as well as advertising in publications that are influential on The Hill. 

"This is not business as usual; we need all of you involved," Mollet said. "Congress needs to hear from members, not just APTA staff. Your stories resonates with them." 

When you have the opportunity, tell your local members of Congress and Senators why investment is important and show them; take them to your agencies and engage them in conversation, she explained. Let them see the current gas tax revenues don't fund current levels of need. 

"We can do this knowing the public is behind us," said Mollet. Last year, 11 out of 15 ballot initiatives passed in eight states to fund transit. Nine out of the 11 past quarters have seen increased in ridership growth and it continues.

There are also great demographic trends right now, including young adults, the Millennials. APTA recently came out with a report that shows this generation is the most multi-modal and could be a game changer for public transportation. (view report here)

Looking Regional

Urban areas are growing and Todd Hemingston, VP Strategic Planning and Development of Capital Metro, spoke on Lessons in Collaboration for a regional plan. Project Connect is a partnership between central Texas transportation agencies to create a high-capacity, long-range system plan for central Texas. This group included Capital Metro, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the city of Austin and L Star.

This was the first regional transit system plan and Hemingston said it was necessary because the area is a fast-growing area. Population has been doubling every 20 years and congestion is growing. Among other things, mobility access is an issue and investing billions in roadways isn't going to solve those problems by itself. 

The three main questions were how will this plan fit together, how will the multiple entities work together and how will all of this be paid for. 

Over 18 months there were 26 meetings to define the focus area and what high-capacity transit is. Their answer? Transit that is congestion proof or congestion resistant; has dedicated right of way and/or transit priority; and has fewer stops and higher speeds. They came up with regional rail, commuter rail, urban rail and BRT. In Austin, "light rail" is controversial Hemingston said, so they refer to it as "urban rail.

They looked at a number of corridors throughout the region and sorted out to the top ones. The north corridor and core of the city came out ahead and they just completed the north corridor study. Three more corridors followed and those are being geared up for corridor studies. 

Lessons learned:
Partnerships are essential
It requires a leap of faith to plan beyond jurisdictional boundary
Compromise and trade offs are essential
Funding remains a major challenge
Engage key stakeholders early and often
People support what they help create
Simplifying complexity is not simple, it needs to be done carefully
Be mindful to not let the tail wag the dog: keep the focus in a good solid planning effort
Coordination meetings are essential. 
Personalities can be a make it or break it element
One dialogue is critical; building trust is essential
Maintaining momentum is essential for long-term success