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APTA Sustainability Conference - Los Angeles, CA


Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

 AUGUST 1, 2011

Thank you, Bill [Millar].

I’m thrilled to join you today to talk about our shared commitment to sustainability.

Together, we are determined to become better stewards of our environment.

We are determined to bring a “green” mindset to the work of strengthening our transportation systems, our communities, and our economy.

It is abundantly clear to all of us that the path we’ve been on for decades. . . consuming vast quantities of fossil fuels, encouraging policies that promote sprawl, tolerating levels of roadway congestion that unleash harmful greenhouse gases. . . is unsustainable economically, socially, and politically.

It isn’t difficult to agree that we must change course.

But getting there is another matter entirely.

The kind of change we’re talking about requires transformational shifts in the way the federal government, and its partners, choose to fund core transportation, housing, and environmental programs.

It requires a big change in the kinds of incentives we offer to grantees.

It requires a whole new level of technical assistance and capacity building to ensure that local and regional governments can actually incorporate sustainable practices into their long-range plans for development.

While the idea of “sustainability” isn’t exactly new, the extent to which we are embracing it—making it part of the fabric of government at every level—signals a clear break from the past.

We are, indeed, entering new territory.

And as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details.

I’d like to spend the next few minutes highlighting some of the early successes we’ve had on the sustainability front. . . share some lessons learned. . . and outline where we think there is still work to be done.

Let’s begin with some clear signs of progress.

The Obama Administration has arguably done more in the past two years to encourage the implementation of effective sustainability programs than any Administration in history.

I’m proud to say the Department of Transportation, and the Federal Transit Administration, have had a great deal to do with that.

DOT’s sustainability partnership with HUD and the EPA has so far awarded more than $1 billion in technical assistance, planning, and capital grants that are bringing vacant brownfields back to life; putting more local buses and streetcars on city streets; and including bikers and walkers in any comprehensive planning process.

In June, DOT announced the availability of up to $175 million in new livability grants through the partnership. These funds are aimed at assuring that transportation and housing decisions are made jointly, while recognizing the unique character of each community.

FTA also recently announced a third round of TIGGER grants—an innovative program promoting transit investments in greenhouse gas and energy reduction.

These funds, combined with additional funds from FTA’s Clean Fuels Program, allow transit providers to compete for a share of about $100 million for innovative projects that create green jobs, promote the use of clean fuels, and cut our nation’s dependence on oil.

This means that FTA has made roughly $276 million available for innovative transit energy projects since 2009. And these investments are already paying off.

The Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, for example, is using TIGGER funds to make seemingly mundane improvements to lighting, insulation, and other areas to reduce energy consumption by more than 30 percent a year. That’s over half a million dollars in annual energy savings, and a payback on our investment in under five years.

In Indiana, the Greater Lafayette Public Transportation Corporation is using TIGGER money to erect three wind turbines. This provides a renewable energy sources to power the agency’s main facilities in Lafayette and cover about 70 percent of its total energy needs. Better still, the agency expects to sell excess power back to the utility.

And in Atlanta, MARTA recently broke ground on a large solar canopy installation that will simultaneously harness solar power to operate a major bus facility, while providing much-needed shade for parked buses. The solar panels alone will offset roughly half the facility’s annual electrical costs.

What have we learned from all the great work that’s under way and on the drawing boards?

We’ve learned that projects like these, and scores of others, provide a clear window onto what we can achieve by leveraging sustainable practices that are not only good for the environment, but for the transit industry’s bottom line at a time when every single penny counts.

And, importantly, we’ve learned that sustainability goals cannot be achieved in a vacuum.

This is all about partnerships—between federal departments, between local and regional governments, between state transportation planners and MPOs, and between public agencies and private industry.

Nor can we succeed with a strictly top-down approach.

We’ve learned, working with our counterparts in HUD and the EPA, that coordination is critical. If we in the federal government cannot align our priorities, our incentives, and our funding streams, how can we expect our local partners to do so on their end?

At the same time, Washington can provide tools, training, and funding—but it’s up to all of you to help win the political and popular support back home that enables communities to get on the same page, set priorities, and compete for federal resources that help state and local dollars go a lot further.

So now I’ve highlighted some early “wins,” and lessons we’re learning from new ways of doing business.

There’s still a lot we all need to figure out, when it comes to making sustainability truly successful across the board.

There are still many distinct filters that drive decisions and priorities. How do we avoid creating new silos that undercut the holistic approach we’re aiming for?

For instance, FTA’s commitment to help transit agencies better manage their system-wide maintenance backlogs and improve asset management practices can be described as a sustainability initiative.

Likewise, our commitment to invest in multi-modal transportation projects that promote healthy, vibrant neighborhoods can also be construed as a sustainability initiative.
Both are valid—but they call for different metrics, different resources, different solutions.  
And then there is climate change—potentially the biggest driver of sustainability activities in the future.

I will be the first to admit that this is an area where, from a policy and program perspective, we’re still in a fluid state. We’re still figuring things out.

We know that adapting to climate change has serious implications for the transit industry, which must grapple with the impact of temperature extremes on infrastructure wear-and-tear, while dealing with an increase in catastrophic events like floods and tornadoes.

The open question is determining the best approaches to tackle this on multiple fronts—federally and at the state and local levels, and in partnership with private industry and the research community.

One promising model to watch closely is under way right here in California. The stated passed the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act in 2008, known as SB 375. In a nutshell, it’s a legislative mandate that requires MPOs to develop sustainable community strategies—such as transit-oriented development—in order to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.

This is a promising starting point that opens the door for federal incentives to reinforce state-level requirements. It potentially sets us on a path to integrate land use, housing, and transportation planning so we can meet our sustainability goals.

But of course, this is just the beginning of an extensive process.

We’re eager to engage all of you in a discussion about how we anticipate and address climate-change issues in transportation.

That’s why I strongly encourage you to attend our first workshop on the impact of climate change on transit, held here in Los Angeles on Wednesday, with additional sessions to follow in the fall in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Looking ahead, we all recognize that we’re living in an age of austerity. We’re all being asked to do more, with less.

This lends added urgency to our sustainability initiatives, because as we all know, lessening our dependence on oil, improving efficiency, and supporting a green economy all help tight budgets stretch farther than they otherwise could.

Even as we tighten our belts, this Administration is committed to finding the resources we need to move our priorities forward and secure better transportation for all Americans.

Obviously, we face some hurdles on the way to making our vision a reality. But we remain optimistic that we can work productively with Congress in the weeks and months ahead.

Meanwhile, I strongly encourage all of you to work with your delegation to fight for our shared priorities, for a meaningful budget, and for a forward-looking reauthorization bill.

As you well know, this mission couldn’t be more important.

And let us never forget: This is America. We reach high. We push the envelope. And together, we’ll continue to build the transportation systems that will keep this country moving forward.

Thank you.

Updated: Wednesday, March 16, 2016
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