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2022 American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Annual Conference


American Public Transportation Association (APTA) TransForm Conference 2022
Remarks of Acting Administrator Nuria Fernandez
(as prepared for delivery)

Thank you, Dorval. And thank you all! How wonderful is it to see all the great work the transit industry is doing in that video?

We are going to talk about some of the challenges the industry is facing, but I wanted to take a minute for us to acknowledge where we are and how far we have come.

We have a President in the White House, a Congress, and a Secretary of Transportation who are supporting public transportation like never before.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act have invested a historic amount of funds in transit. These investments will help fight climate change and change our nation.

Just as important, I want to acknowledge how all of you have met this moment, understanding that crisis can yield opportunity. 

In fact, you have taken this pivotal time to change the way your systems serve your community, to find new riders and to build new routes and new rolling stock that will create better transit for generations to come.

I am particularly proud to be FTA Administrator at this time because the Federal Transit Administration has helped you respond, react and reinvest. In the fiscal year that just ended, FTA obligated a record amount of grant funding this year to fund your systems and your growth: $41 billion dollars obligated and $34 billion disbursed. It is a huge number, and it is going to make a huge difference.

So you all deserve a round of applause for the incredible work you are doing to improve mobility in your communities. [pause, lead in applause]

And of course, I am very excited to be here with all of you in Seattle!

I want to say thank you to Paul Skoutelas and the entire APTA team for making this week’s event possible. It is important to gather, and all the behind-the-scenes work makes sessions like this happen.
I also want to thank all of the APTA Board Members for your leadership and vision. We rely on our partnership with you as a two-way street … you help promote FTA’s programs and initiatives, while we stay in touch with what is happening in the industry. Conferences like these are a touchpoint for FTA, so please keep doing what you are doing.

I’m joined today by FTA Deputy Administrator Veronica Vanterpool, who later will highlight the transit agencies receiving FTA’s Climate Challenge awards. And after that, I will invite a few industry leaders to join me for a discussion about one of the biggest challenges we face – the workforce shortage – and strategies to successfully address it.

To ground our discussion, let’s begin with some facts. Did you know that approximately 8 percent of the population of the United States is transit dependent? In other words, 28 million people rely on buses, trains, ferries and streetcars to get where they need to go because they have no. other. option.

We all keep them in mind when we go to work each day. We have people relying on us to get to their jobs, school, medical appointments and to see friends and family.
Beyond serving as a public good, transit systems in rural and metropolitan areas are critical to the economic health and sustainable growth of America’s communities. One of my favorite APTA studies says that over 20 years, with a steady annual investment, every $1 billion dollars invested in American transit yields $5 billion of additional economic impact, including about 18,000 new jobs.

We need to tell the story of transit’s incredible impact on our economy, whether it’s the nation as a whole or your neighborhood.

And, as we look at the value transit creates in our economy, we can look closer, at the value created in people’s lives. That story, of people taking transit and changing their lives, is critical. Of course, they are also helping the planet.

Transit is a social good. And a necessary one. The past few years have reminded us that we cannot take strong institutions for granted, and that includes the transit industry.

At FTA, we are aware how hard transit agencies worked and sacrificed when COVID first surfaced. 

We still mourn those we lost even while we celebrate transit frontline workers for their dedication in making sure the trains still ran and buses traveled our streets.

We have moved past those dark days, but the effects of the pandemic linger. We have struggled to regain riders in a time when people worry about safety, have ditched the office to work at home, and are content to sit in traffic or consider booking a ride with a transportation network company rather than take transit.

We know that in April 2020, ridership dipped to about 20 percent of pre-pandemic numbers. Recently, transit ridership nationwide has climbed to 75 percent of where we were before COVID hit.
While that is good news, we have more work to do in the coming years. That loss of fare box revenue is hitting many of you in the pocketbook. At the same time, recruiting and retaining a full staff of professionally trained workers has become another significant challenge.

And, finally, I want you all to know that we have heard the transit industry when it comes to the supply chains that provide our vehicle manufacturers and facilities construction teams with the resources they need to move our industry forward.

We know getting vehicles delivered has become a slow process, and that the cost of materials has increased. We are particularly aware of the concerns surrounding small bus and van chassis.

There is no magic wand for this problem. Even if there was, magic wand components are hard to come by [pause for laugh].

What we are doing at FTA is working with Secretary Buttigieg and the cross-modal team he has assembled, as well as former Mayor Mitch Landrieu on the White House task force for supply chain issues, to address as many of the underlying challenges that we can, when it comes to manufacturing and importing goods and resources. We appreciate all the solutions the industry is putting forward, and we are doing everything, and taking every idea we can to help break the logjam. We know how important it is.

We also know that for many of you, one answer to this crisis has been the willingness to reopen contracts you have already signed with vehicle manufacturers. For those situations, FTA requires our grantees to do a full cost analysis. In that analysis, the transit vehicle manufacturer must substantiate why the increase in cost is needed. This is an important step to ensure that cost increases are kept as low as possible. FTA will continue to work with our regional offices, and with our grantees, to clarify the requirement and to make sure it is being properly adhered to by both grantees AND transit vehicle manufacturers.

And while we are talking about solutions, I want to assure you that FTA is focused on your needs. As we will discuss with a panel in a moment, we are focused on key areas – such as retaining a productive workforce – to help public transportation thrive.

People continued taking transit even during 2020 because it was a critical way for them to access their needs, including receiving vaccinations. And witnessing that, and in response to changing travel behavior, we are seeing agencies re-allocate resources to meet the needs of different kinds of transit trips, including not only commuters, but midday and at other times.

For example, Miami-Dade Transit conducted a two-year effort to analyze and redesign its bus network. Miami Dade’s Better Bus Network team analyzed ridership data, surveyed thousands of people, held more than 140 events and met with elected officials, community organizations and bus drivers.

Then, based on all of that input, CEO Eulois Cleckley and his team redesigned the bus network to better meet people’s needs. The project was based on the premise of not leaving anyone behind; it now offers more bus service and easier connections.

In Denver, the Regional Transportation District recently approved an overhaul of its bus network to focus on more frequent service in high-ridership areas.
In its most ambitious redesign of its bus network in 50 years, and following a detailed look at travel patterns, RTD has begun to increase bus routes in areas of higher demand, while trimming some of its longer, lesser-used routes. In the end, Debra Johnson and her team anticipate RTD will attract more riders and address their changing needs on the heels of the pandemic.

And, finally, Santa Clara VTA – as many of you may know, this was the agency I led before coming to FTA – is implementing its Next Network Plan. The plan redesigned VTA’s bus and rail system almost from scratch to improve efficiency and increase ridership. Recently, with help from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, VTA launched a fare-free pilot program for students at San Jose State University. It is a way to make commuting more affordable and promote equity … and, in the process -- they hope -- create lifelong transit users.

We know ridership patterns have changed. I hope that all of you are spending your time and investing in ways to find out how people in your communities prefer to take transit ...  and adapt accordingly.

We should also view transit-oriented development as an opportunity to renew ridership.
We are encouraging mayors, county leaders and metropolitan planning organizations to plan for better connected communities with more mobility options.

Since 2015, FTA’s TOD program has provided more than $90 million dollars to help communities around the country plan for new opportunities around transit. Through the program and our technical assistance, we are supporting local efforts to build and rebuild infrastructure near transit stations that connects people to jobs, housing and other opportunities.

In many areas, that means changing outdated land use and zoning regulations. We know transit requires density. We know that better planned, denser communities are more productive, more diverse and more economical than sprawl.

It is well worth it to create walkable, mixed-use development near transit, which reduces single-car trips and greenhouse gas emissions, attracts people, and adds to vibrant, connected communities.

To promote equity, we are also working with HUD to encourage community leaders and transit agencies to support the development of affordable housing around transit.

On the flip side, TOD leads to increased ridership. For example, in Atlanta, a nonprofit organization partnered with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority – MARTA – to install soccer fields at five stations.

Not only does the Station Soccer program improve health and wellness, but it encourages a lot of soccer players to ride the metro, too! In August, I joined MARTA’s interim general manager Collie Greenwood to see the soccer fields firsthand. I just love the energy they have created at the MARTA stations. So, there is a lot we can do.

If we consider how far we have come in the last 18 months, there really is cause for optimism.

The early results are in. We are starting to see how this historic federal investment is expanding and modernizing transit, taking a bite out of greenhouse gas emissions and reconnecting communities. 
A big part of that increase is FTA’s huge new Low and No Emission bus program. As we experience more disastrous impacts from climate change, transitioning from diesel to electric or other forms of low-no technology has become an urgent mission.

In August, FTA announced our latest round of bus grant awards that will support 1,800 new American-made buses and double the transit industry’s fleet of no-emission buses by adding more than 1,100.

Not only is FTA providing funding for these important fleet changes, we are also investing in worker training and technical assistance to support the operational changes needed to transition to greener vehicles.

For example, New York MTA will receive a record amount of support from this program: $116 million dollars to buy as many as 230 electric buses. FTA’s support is a major step to help MTA achieve its goal to fully convert its bus operations to zero emissions in 20 years.

The grant also supports MTA in launching a comprehensive worker training program. It will help the agency attract new talent to high-tech careers in electric bus operations, maintenance, and management.

FTA awarded $76 million dollars in grants to the Memphis Area Transit Authority to build a new operations and maintenance facility and buy approximately 16 electric buses.
MATA’s current facility is over 40 years old. The new bus center will include space to accommodate MATA’s new electric bus fleet and charging equipment, and the grant will also support worker training to operate and maintain the next-generation buses. And in a further effort to minimize its footprint, MATA plans to generate its own power by installing solar panels.

And I am really pleased to announce that 25 Native American and Alaska Native communities will receive a share of $8.6 million dollars through FTA’s competitive Tribal Transit program this year. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes nearly $46 million in competitive funding over five years for the program, an increase of nearly 83 percent.
According to the National Transit Database, Tribal Transit systems provide 12 million miles every year. We want to support their critical work in providing access to jobs, schools, healthcare, and other opportunities.

We will host a public announcement about the tribal grants tomorrow here at the hotel. Please consider dropping by the Aspen Room at 10:15 a.m. to learn more about what FTA is supporting this year.
I am also particularly proud of the new All Stations Accessibility Program, which will make it easier for people of all abilities to board safely at the nation’s rail stations. The grant opportunity for a share of $343 million dollars through this competitive grant program just closed. I look forward to announcing the grant selections later this year.

I am also happy that, this week, we will announce the notice of funding opportunity for the Rail Car Replacement Program, which provides $600 million dollars to replace aging railcars. Eligible agencies have until January 5 to apply. Since it is the beginning of the fiscal year, we have the ability to put out two years’ worth of funding and that is exactly what we are doing.

That program represents a tangible way FTA is helping tackle the huge transit disinvestment backlog, which has ballooned to more than $100 billion dollars. Increases in formula funding for state of good repair needs will make inroads, too.

The Capital Investment Grants program also received a boost under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

We expect the program will receive up to $23 billion dollars over the next five years, a major expansion in our federal support for capital projects across the nation.

Right here in the Pacific Northwest, Community Transit is expanding its bus rapid transit network. With our federal support through the CIG program, Community Transit broke ground last spring on its Orange Line, which will bring better, faster, safer transportation options to the people of Snohomish [Snow HOME ish] County.

When the Orange Line is complete, it will connect to Sound Transit’s light rail system. That will give an equal opportunity for everyone who steps through the doors of an Orange Line bus to move freely to downtown Seattle, to Sea-Tac Airport and from there, to the world.
We all know that capital projects are expensive and obtaining financing can be challenging. 

So I am really happy today to talk to you about an important change in the Department’s TIFIA program that will expand opportunities for agencies looking for fair financing deals as they undertake capital projects.

The TIFIA loan program will now start providing loans of up to 49 percent of total project costs. 

These low-cost, flexible loans are available for transit as well as transit-oriented development projects and will help speed projects from concept through to delivery. TIFIA loans have historically been capped at 33% of eligible project costs, so this will help project sponsors put together their financing more easily.

I also want to be sure you are all aware of the opportunities through USDOT’s Reconnecting Communities and Thriving Communities programs. Reconnecting Communities will help cities and towns address the consequences of inequitable decision-making with funding and technical help.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law established a competitive grant program, funded with $1 billion dollars over the next 5 years, with the express aim of reconnecting communities that were previously cut off from economic opportunities by transportation infrastructure.

And, knowing that transportation and housing are the highest expenses for every household, USDOT is partnering with the Department of Housing and Urban Development as part the Thriving Communities program to build more affordable housing along transit corridors. 

HUD and DOT just issued a NOFO for the program, which is being coordinated across our two agencies to provide technical assistance and capacity-building support.
I want to leave you with one final thought before I ask Veronica to join me on stage. I speak on behalf of Secretary Buttigieg and everyone at FTA when I say we recognize and appreciate the incredibly important role you play in connecting America. We continue to count on you -- transit agencies working in the large cities, the suburbs and rural communities -- to help everyone get where they need and want to go.

And because we now have the federal funding support many of us could have only dreamed about, we can make those aspirations a reality. Thank you.