Remarks As Prepared for Delivery; Actual Presentations May Differ
I am truly honored to be the first FTA Administrator in history to meet with transit industry leaders from the Dakotas at a Dakota Transit event.
One of the privileges of my job is that I get to travel to parts of the country I’ve never visited before.
So it really is a great treat for me to spend some time in Rapid City, however briefly.
I have two goals here today: First, to convey my deep appreciation for everything you’re doing to provide safe, reliable, affordable transportation options for the citizens who proudly make their home in hundreds of small cities and towns and reservations across the Dakotas – from Williston, Bismarck, and Standing Rock in the North. . . to Mitchell, Pierre, and Pine Ridge in the South.
All of you do an incredible job under very challenging conditions and with limited resources.
I know you’re ably assisted by Darin Berquist, the Secretary of South Dakota’s DOT, and Francis Ziegler, North Dakota’s DOT Director.
We’re grateful for their leadership.
My second goal is to share with you the steps we’re taking in the Obama Administration to help all of you do an even better job serving the rural communities in your jurisdictions.
You know, my boss, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, has a word he uses to describe parts of the country that people sometimes overlook.
He calls these places “Forgottonia.”
I’m here to tell you today, in no uncertain terms, that Secretary LaHood and I have not forgotten the good people of North and South Dakota.
We have not forgotten that access to transportation is absolutely essential to the economic and social health of every one of your communities.
And we have not forgotten that the federal government—and especially the FTA—have an obligation to understand the challenges you face, and to work with you to provide the resources you need to overcome them.
Barb Cline tells a story about her son, Clint, that I think illustrates what so many of you and your customers are up against.
Barb’s given us permission to share some of the details.
Clint is 33 and lives in Spearfish, about 50 miles north of here along I-90.
He’s a husband and a father of two young children, with a third on the way.
Clint had a pretty good job with a car dealership here in Rapid City. But we all know selling cars is a tough gig these days, and understandably, Clint didn’t feel he had the job security or the benefits his family needed.
So he looked around and found a new job operating heavy equipment in the coal fields in Gillette, Wyoming.
It’s a good job—but he has to travel 90 miles each way, every day.
This lengthy commute not only takes Clint away from his family for long stretches.
It’s enormously draining and puts tremendous wear and tear on a car that he’s got to maintain.
And of course, he’s not the only guy doing this. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, like him. I’m sure you know some of them.
A transit-run minivan that scoops up several workers heading from the Spearfish area to Gillette might lighten the load for people like Clint Cline.
But that takes money and equipment that Prairie Hills Transit, and other transit operators, don’t have to spare right now.
My point in telling this story is that I get it.
I get that the conditions on the ground in rural America, the challenges of getting from point A to point B, are different from other places.
And I get that many of your customers are living on a fixed income, on Medicaid, and they look to all of you for a transit lifeline to bring them to the doctor’s, or the dialysis center, or the hospital.
You’ve got a lot of ground to cover, a lot of demand-response service to organize, a lot of driver training and education to perform—and all the while, you’re chasing resources so that you don’t let your friends, and neighbors, and customers down.
You’re in a tough business. There’s no question about that.
You’re also in an essential business.
Fortunately, the Obama Administration is more focused on strengthening transportation for all Americans—including rural Americans—than any other in our history.
Just last week, we awarded our last Recovery Act grant.
That’s $8.78 billion for 1,072 grants.
We met the challenge of putting every dollar to use, creating good-paying jobs now, with long-term benefits that will outlast many of us in the room.
This included $25 million to help all the transit operators in North and South Dakota expand and modernize their service.
I know your agencies are already putting these funds to good use.
For example, River City Transit in Pierre just put South Dakota’s first hybrid bus into service. They’re already saving money on fuel.
Grand Forks is replacing a third of its fixed-route fleet with brand new buses.
Fargo and Sioux Falls are getting new fare collection equipment.
In Eureka, a new bus barn means transit agency staff no longer need to park in a neighbor’s driveway.
And Prairie Transit is leveraging $1.5 million in Recovery Act funds to build a new multi-purpose facility in Spearfish that will shelter buses; provide a home for maintenance, scheduling, and dispatch services; and offer on-site day care and training facilities for the community to use.
It’s no accident this new building is smack in the middle of a 40-acre development offering affordable housing.
This is a very big win for the community—and a great example of the investments we’re making to support livable, walkable, and sustainable communities in rural America.
You know, FTA’s mission isn’t too complicated. It’s to understand the critical role that public transportation plays in our lives and in our communities.
Our goal is to protect it, and the people who ride it.
And that’s why getting these investments out the door as quickly and efficiently as possible has been one of my top priorities.
But the Recovery Act isn’t an end point—it’s a down payment on your future.
Last year, FTA awarded a record-breaking $391 million to rural transit through our regular formula-based programs.
The question now is, “What do we do from this point forward?”
The answer is, we continue to invest, and re-invest, in transit and infrastructure.
And we do it more quickly, and responsibly, than ever.
FTA is putting $1 billion in discretionary money on the street. And we’ll set records for how quickly we get it out there because we share your sense of financial urgency.
As I’ve said time and again, we at FTA want to take your local vision and make it real whenever, and wherever, possible.
But I want to emphasize that as we continue to invest, one of DOT’s top strategic priorities going forward is to bring our current transit systems into a state of good repair.
I hardly have to tell you that keep aging, rusting buses and vans on the street long past their expiration date doesn’t make for a comfortable, or necessarily safe, ride.
As you probably heard, our research on the conditions of 700 of the nation’s rail and bus systems—including rural systems—indicates we need nearly $80 billion to bring all of it into a state of good repair.
That doesn’t mean we should all panic. Far from it.
Thanks to the skill and professionalism of all the transit general managers here today, and your employees, you’re great at balancing the service needs of your riders against the maintenance and capital needs of your infrastructure.
That said, I’m well aware that even though our investments in rural transit are at an all-time high, your operating and capital needs are also at an all-time high.
And that’s why, in the near future, we’ll make $775 million available for our State of Good Repair Bus initiative.
These funds will finance capital projects to replace, rehabilitate, and purchase buses and related equipment, as well as the construction or rehab of bus-related facilities.
In addition, we’ve found a way to boost our formula state-of-good-repair funding for bus and rail operators by 8 percent in our proposed 2011 budget that’s before Congress.
My bottom line is, it’s our business to help all of you succeed in your business.
It’s our business to invest our limited resources in the projects that help you and your customers to create and sustain livable, walkable, communities.
In closing, I want to again thank all of you for working so hard to provide a transportation lifeline that meets the needs of North and South Dakota’s hard-working rural families.
Everything I’ve discussed today sets the stage for our future. . . a future where efficient, sustainable, integrated transportation choices are a driving force in our economy. . .a catalyst for developing vital, livable rural communities. . . and a lifeline for everyone who, by necessity or choice, does not have access to a car.
I know that times are still hard, and difficult challenges lie ahead for all of us.
But as always, if we work together to fulfill this Administration’s belief in the power of transportation, then we will make a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.