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2023 American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Legislative Conference


American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Legislative Conference 2023
Remarks of Administrator Nuria Fernandez
(as prepared for delivery)

Thank you, Matt [Tucker, APTA Legislative Cmte chair] and good morning, everyone. It is wonderful to see so many familiar faces! I never take for granted the value of us being able to get together at APTA events such as this. It is exciting to see the synergy and exchange of ideas we experience when we are in person. So, thank you all for being here.

First, I want to acknowledge APTA incoming chair Dorval Carter and President Paul Skoutelas, along with all of the board members. They are longtime advocates for public transportation working with FTA and all of you to support transit success nationwide.

I learned during my years on APTA’s board what it takes to host an industry conference. So, I also want to thank the APTA team for the magic and hard work putting on this event. It is no small feat preparing for hundreds of people descending on Washington!

This morning, I want to focus on the big news coming out of President Biden’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 and FTA’s annual report on the Capital Investment Grants program. This year, we have a great deal to talk about!

I will also talk about safety and how the Department is taking our quest to get to zero deaths on the nation’s roads and highways to the next level.

After that, I will invite some of my colleagues on FTA’s leadership team to join me on stage to discuss what we see as the top issues facing the industry today.

As we gather here in March 2023, we are three years out from the beginning of the pandemic. Those were dark days indeed, and I and everyone at FTA are forever grateful for the commitment and sacrifices from all of you - and especially frontline workers –keeping Americans moving.

Thanks to President Biden’s leadership, FTA provided nearly $70 billion dollars in relief funding that helped keep transit going during tough times. As I’ve traveled around the country, I’ve met many of the more than 50,000 transit operators who got to keep their jobs, getting frontline workers, doctors and nurses where they needed to go.

Now, our world has changed, especially in transit. Estimates vary, but most point to more than 50 percent of American workers working remotely at least one day a week.

This means a new world for our industry. We know that buses have rebounded significantly, while rail transit has been slower to grow ridership. We also know this has created a strain on many of your financial projections.

President Biden, Secretary Buttigieg, and all of us at FTA are acutely aware that transit agencies designed to serve downtown commuters and generating fare revenue to cover operating expenses now see that strength turned into a tremendous challenge -- what many of refer to as a “fiscal cliff.”

We know many of you face real pocketbook concerns once the pandemic supplemental funding runs out.

That is why today I am announcing our proposal to add new flexibility to the Urbanized Area Formula program that would allow all transit agencies to apply those funds to support operating expenses. This proposed change in federal transit law is included in the President’s proposed budget

As you may know, federal law already permits small transit agencies to use urban formula for operating expenses. This change would put large systems in areas over 200,000 population on equal footing. It would come at a critical time. We must support continued essential daily service for millions of travelers. This requires filling projected holes in your budgets.

The proposed flexibility does require state and local government to maintain their fair share of transit funding, but also recognizes our shared financial future. This approach will keep non-federal funding in place and give FTA’s recipients the ability to direct Urbanized Area Formula dollars to the greatest needs, addressing operating, recapitalization, and expansion needs.

APTA tells us that every dollar invested in transit means five dollars of economic production. The largest transit systems play a critical role in the national economy by moving people to jobs, school, healthcare appointments and so many essential activities. Collectively, large transit systems still provide close to 8.5 million trips per day. They also employ more than 100,000 workers.

And these large transit systems serve businesses, schools and riders who are responsible for about 25 percent of our nation’s economic production… remote work or not.

This proposal will help bridge the transition for many of you as you navigate the new realities and look for ways to adjust your services to meet people where they live and work.

And to assist rural, tribal and non-profit agencies, the President’s Budget proposes to eliminate the requirement to match obligations in FY 2024 for Enhanced Mobility of Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities funding and Formula Grants for Rural Areas. Making this funding 100 percent federal for services supporting rural residents, seniors and persons with disabilities is pivotal to the well-being of our communities.

Of course, along with the President’s Budget comes FTA’s annual report on Capital Investment Grants, which represent some of our biggest investments in high-quality transit expansion. The report we released detailed exactly what we hope to do with it in the coming year.

The President’s budget recommends $4.45 billion dollars to advance 18 bus rapid transit and rail transit projects in 11 states to receive federal support in FY24.

Nine projects are in line to receive funding for the first time, while other projects on the list are already under construction or far along in the planning process.

I hope all of you have seen the 2024 Annual Report and our recommendations, but I will hit the high notes for you:

Along with nine projects receiving their first federal funding commitment, our request includes proposed funding for four projects already under construction with signed Full Funding Grant Agreements and 14 additional projects in the CIG/EPD pipeline. This includes funding recommendations for projects included in prior budgets to help them advance projects.

In addition to the FY 2024 proposed funding, FTA is also allocating $1.1 billion in CIG and Expedited Project Delivery funding from FY 2022 and FY 2023 for more than 30 projects nationwide.

These investments will advance transportation projects that will make a real impact: creating economic opportunity, advancing equity, reducing congestion and pollution, and taking a bite out of climate change.
As I said, we are recommending several projects to receive funding for the first time. They span the country, from North Carolina to Minnesota to Texas to California.

The nation’s fourth largest city – Houston -- is growing fast, and its transit system will grow with it. Houston Metro’s University Corridor BRT is being recommended for $150 million dollars in CIG funding. This project will show the incredible potential of BRT in a congested downtown by featuring dedicated bus lanes for all 25 miles.

It will connect at least four colleges and universities, which is great for a student like Isaiah Marin who attends Texas Southern. He lives downtown and takes the bus to his business classes every day. He says the bus is perfect for him, but the University Corridor BRT will be even better.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the first BRT in that state will connect the tourism and culture of downtown with thousands of people in North Charleston, as well as Trident Medical Center and three universities. We are recommending B-C-D-Cog, the Council of Governments, for $100 million dollars in funding to create a system that will see dedicated lanes for more than half of its 21 miles.

The system will be all electric, keeping the air clean for the future, while the Lowcountry Line helps connect a planned 11 million square feet of new retail and more than 5,000 hotel rooms along the route.

Both of those bus rapid transit projects are going to promote equity. For more than 28 million people, in every community, in every state, no matter what you look like or where you were born, transit is the way your life gets better.

Nowhere is that going to be more true than the South Side of Chicago. Right now, the Red Line ends at 95th Street, leaving the Roseland community behind. That’s why we are recommending $350 million dollars for a five-and-a-half mile expansion of CTA’s Red line.

The El is an enduring symbol of the Second City, and everywhere it touches, economic growth follows. The Far South Side should be no different. CTA projects more than 13,000 people a day will benefit from the new Red Line service.

This is the latest big-vision project CTA has undertaken in the last decade. Back in 2016, CTA began a Red and Purple Line modernization project supported by an FTA Core Capacity grant that resulted in the rehabilitation of four rail stations, a grade-separated flyover between two rail lines, new railcars, a higher-capacity signal system, and more. All of this to make rides smoother and easier for Chicagoans.

It has made a difference for riders. We heard a story about a rider who lives in Lakeview. He does not have a car, so takes the El to visit his family in Northalsted [North Halsted]. The flyover shortened his trip, and the extra trains reduced crowding. No more standing on the platform watching packed trains go by. His ride is faster and safer, and he gets to spend more time with family.

The budget also includes support to Los Angeles Metro as it continues its ambitious light rail expansion in advance of the 2028 Olympic Games – as well as to New Jersey and New York for the Hudson Tunnels project and Second Avenue Subway phase 2.

FTA, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Build America Bureau are continuing to provide technical assistance to the Gateway Development Commission as it moves the Hudson Tunnels project through the CIG process. We recognize how important this project is to workers and residents in the New York metro area – and throughout the entire Northeast Corridor. Close to 200,000 people take New Jersey Transit and Amtrak trains through the existing North River tunnel every day.

Whether you are creating a BRT system serving a historic southern port or heavy rail providing even more opportunity on the Great Lakes, I want to thank every project sponsor for your work to expand transit in your communities.

Of course, as important as funding is, all of you have heard me say that safety is our North Star. With that in mind, USDOT recently launched the next phase of the National Roadway Safety Strategy initiative: a call to action for all of us to demonstrate our commitment to getting to zero deaths on our roadways.

FTA is encouraging transit agencies around the country – especially bus agencies that have reported more pedestrian collisions – to commit to specific actions, such as:

  • creating bus-only lanes,
  • incorporating anti-collision technology, and
  • improving pedestrian and bike infrastructure around stations.

Your commitment will help demonstrate that riding public transportation is one of the best strategies for getting to zero.

I want to thank APTA leadership for signing on early! As the largest public transportation organization in North America, APTA’s commitment is critical.

As part of the National Roadway Safety campaign, on February 1, Secretary Buttigieg announced $800 million in grant awards for 510 communities through the first round of funding for the Safe Streets and Roads for All program. The grants will support planning and construction projects undertaken by MPOs, transit agencies, municipalities, and Tribes working together to prevent roadway fatalities and serious injuries. It reflects the Department’s commitment to truly get to zero!

In addition, FTA and FHWA will now start waiving the local match for State and Metropolitan Planning funds to support transit agencies working on Complete Streets planning projects.

This reflects a priority written into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to increase safe and accessible transportation options nationwide.

Complete Streets focuses on safety for everyone, as we all move through our communities: pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users in addition to motorists.

You may not immediately think of safety in the same way you think of service, when it comes to equity, but both can be viewed through that lens. We know that collisions create a disproportionate number of deaths in low-income communities. It can be an inner-city intersection right here in Washington, where people are struck and killed; but it can also be a rural street in Iowa with no sidewalks, where kids walk home from school on the side of the road.

It also requires considering the most vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians, cyclists, and people who use wheelchairs.

This is truly an effort to build complete, safe streets for everyone, from the smallest town to the biggest metropolis.

This isn’t just for cars and pedestrians though, transit can help. For example:

  • The New York City Department of Transportation flexed FHWA funding to rehabilitate and expand bus stops along a high ridership corridor in Brooklyn. As part of the project, NYCDOT included high-visibility crosswalks, pedestrian islands and lengthened the pedestrian crossing time.
  • Go Triangle in Durham received support through a BUILD grant to construct an intermodal facility at Raleigh Union Station to improve connectivity, service and reliability, with important safety features. The new facility will include a pedestrian bridge, signalization and a bus-only entrance to ensure separate, safe access for bus riders.

To make transportation even safer, we are expanding support to prioritize transit planning in low-income communities and in lower density communities. This planning comes with a federal share of at least 90 percent for grants that increase mobility by expanding transit. In the coming weeks, we will post a toolkit to help states, MPOs and transit agencies take advantage of this additional financial support.

And speaking of tools, my staff has developed a number of resources to help you navigate the changes to urbanized areas that occurred thanks to the 2020 Census. The changes resulted in 28 new urbanized areas and 12 areas that moved from urban to rural.  Fifteen other areas moved from large urban to small urban or vice-versa, among other changes.

And with these changes comes new apportionments in FY 2024 and changes to grant and regulatory requirements. We will provide more information in a moment during our panel session.

In another bit of good news, I am also excited to announce that later this week, FTA will be publishing another important proposal regarding affordable housing and transit.

FTA will be proposing a plan, for public comment, to implement a new provision in law that allows transit agencies to use their property to support affordable housing.

FTA will be seeking input on guidance that, once finalized, will set the standards for when FTA-funded property that is no longer needed for its original purpose can be transferred to another entity for use in transit-oriented development and affordable housing. Transit agencies, state and local governments and authorities, housing nonprofits, and other interested parties may learn more about this proposed guidance at one of our webinars on this topic, scheduled for March 16 and 29.

I also want to touch upon the supply chain issues that remain a significant challenge throughout the economy. While the supply chain seems to be loosening, in no small part thanks to the hard work by many, from President Biden to Secretary Buttigieg, to break bottlenecks at the nation’s ports, we know about continuing shortages for goods.

Most notably, shortages in light-duty cutaway buses, which one might say are the hidden workhorses in our industry … providing a variety of essential services, including paratransit and non-emergency medical transportation.

In fact, in 2021, the national fleet contained about 37,500 cutaways, or 25% of the total national transit fleet.

Right now, a shortage of chassis is affecting production of those light-duty buses.

There are equity issues here, too. These buses disproportionally serve essential workers in rural and small communities, along with low-income and minority riders, seniors, and riders with disabilities, a reduction in bus service has a greater impact on these populations.

FTA recently clarified guidance to make it easier for transit agencies to rebuild their small bus and cutaway vehicles and have shared third-party procurement best practices. I encourage you to read our updated answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, and that you attended a session we hosted yesterday on procurement. If not, don’t worry … we will have our procurement leader on stage in a moment.

While we are limited in how to break all of the supply chain logjams, there are certain things we all can do. Whether it’s a cutaway or a 60-foot articulated bus, we encourage you to review your procurement practices and talk to your FTA regional office to provide greater flexibility when buying vehicles.

And with that, I will pause while my colleagues join me on stage. We will discuss funding flexibilities, procurement, safety and our latest plans for technical assistance.