Kate Hinds is an Associate Producer for WNYC News. She also reports for WNYC and Transportation Nation, a public radio reporting project that combines the work of multiple newsrooms to provide coverage of how we build, rebuild and get around the nation.
Union Leader: On Transit, First Two Years of Obama No Different from Bush
Wednesday, April 06, 2011 - 10:22 AM
(Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) On the day that President Obama formally kicked off his reelection campaign, the amount of work the president has to do to energize his former allies came into stark relief. (More on what the administration is doing further down in this post.)
Speaking at a breakfast at the Transportation Equity Network's annual conference, Amalgamated Transit Union president Larry Hanley ticked off a list of urban transit systems that slashed service during the first two years of Obama's presidency: New York, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh... “This administration was indistinguishable from the prior one with respect to transit operating aid,” said Hanley. He said he was grateful for the new money budgeted for transit -- but wanted to know “what can we do…to get the president to recognize publicly that what’s happening to transit is a national crisis and we need collectively to elevate this on the national agenda?”
Seated near him at the dais Deputy Secretary of the US DOT John Porcari responded that the federal government doesn't control local government decisions.
"When you look at how a transportation reauthorization bill actually gets passed," he said, "it's not from the top down...we are going to push as hard as we can, but it's from the bottom up. It's the mayor, county commissioners, and the governors, articulating their needs." To fund the bill, he told the crowd of civil rights, union, and transit advocates, "you need to push that and you need to make sure that your elected officials at the local and state level are making that clear to your congressional delegation. That's what brings the bill home."
But what funds the bill is not as clear. Speaking later in the day at the conference's lunchtime event, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said:
“Few things speak to the Obama Administration’s commitment toward adequate transit service for everyone than our budget proposals...and (President Obama”) is looking to…grow transit funding by no less than 119% over the levels in SAFETEA-LU.” When asked how the president's transit expansion will be paid for, since few politicians want to raise the gas tax, Rogoff answered: "We have been saying repeatedly that the administration stands ready to sit down with Congress and and find that funding mechanism. We do know that the current funding mechanism is not doing the job."
What will do the job has yet to be politically hashed out. The Federal Highway Trust Fund has required two federal transfers of money to keep it solvent.
(According to The Hill, 22 Republican senators signed a letter to the president asking how he'll fund transportation and reiterated their opposition to raising the gas tax.)
Other topics that came up in the day's conversations: Both John Porcari and Peter Rogoff said that the DOT has updated its rules on disadvantaged business enterprises (DBE) -- minority and women-owned companies that government agencies are often required to give a certain percentage of contracts to. “We’re requiring greater accountability from state and local transportation agencies,” said Porcari. He said that the DOT is also emphasizing that prime contractors make sure to meet DBE targets as well. “They’re under much more scrutiny on that, it’s clear we’ve made that a priority.”
Peter Rogoff added: "Secretary LaHood has convened a DBE working group and there's been, I think, more outreach...to try and promote the most robust participation as relates to construction," he said. "I think you may well see some of these issues addressed in reauthorization." He said that the agency had been successful in setting DBE goals for New Starts projects. But he also said that one of the things "we need to discuss head-on" is fraud. "It's a very real problem that our Inspector General and others are appropriately investigating in a number of cases. You could have all the rules and regs and guidance on the street, and if some of those disadvantaged businesses are just serving as a pass-through, or a disadvantaged business in name only, then you haven't achieved your goals."
Last week, construction giant Skanska agreed to pay an almost $20 million settlement for evading minority hiring rules while working on a major transit contract for New York City.
Rogoff also talked about other FTA initiatives, like what he called "meaningful federal oversight of transit safety." While commuter rail lines, he said, were subject to "voluminous" federal oversight, "if you are a rail transit operator in the center city -- the SEPTAs, the Ts in Boston, the New York City subway, the systems in Miami, MARTA in Atlanta -- the safety oversight there is governed by 27 separate, exceedingly small, exceedingly underpowered and under-resourced state safety agencies. My agency, the Federal Transit Administration, many of you may not know, is prohibited by law from issuing safety regulations on the transit agencies we fund."
He also spoke about the "state of good repair" of the nation's transit systems. "I truly believe that that is an issue that is central to the equity discussion. There is a very real tension that exists that all transit agencies must provide, on when we take scarce funds to extend new services to new communities, while simultaneously having very real state of good repair deficiencies with the old line system' that has been serving peoples of need for decades."
"Nationally, about 40% of transit riders have incomes of less than $25,000 a year," he said. "These are the passengers that have absolutely no choice but to endure whatever service we serve up, clean or dirty, convenient or inconvenient, reliable or unreliable." And this is something, he said, that the president understands.
"Barack Obama was obviously a senator who rode the (transit) systems in Chicago and in Boston and elsewhere, " Rogoff said. "it's quite possible that this president took more transit trips in one week of his life than all his predecessors did over the entirety of their lives."
Rogoff also spoke to what is one of the FTA's biggest initiatives: ensuring that transit agencies comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The FTA is "speaking with clarity" about civil rights requirements, he said, and talked about how the agency had worked to ensure compliance with projects such as the Twin Cities' Central Corridor light rail project. "There are some very serious service reductions and in some places service enhancements going on, and what's important is that they know the Title VI requirements apply to both." He said that the FTA is increasing enforcement in terms of civil rights compliance, but that "I’m not looking for trophies of enforcement. ..In the end what will serve riders is compliance, not enforcement."
But as the government is staring down the barrel of yet another po tential shutdown, the conversation came back to fun ding in the end. TEN director Laura Barrett asked Rogoff whether the administration had a 'Plan B' in case the reauthorization bill wasn't passed. Rogoff answered: "All I can say to that is the president ... is committed to a six-year reauthorization bill. The reality is there's only so much that can be accomplished in that kind of environment...I hear you, right now, if we're not focused on making Plan A happen aggressively, we have no shot at Plan A."
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