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At 50, Federal Transit Administration Credited With Growing Public Transit

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The Federal Transit Administration, which promotes public transit, turns 50 today.
The Federal Transit Administration, which promotes public transit, turns 50 today.

The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Medicare and Medicaid.

These are some of the landmark pieces of legislation that come to mind when considering the legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the civil rights bill, considered one of the most important legislative acts in U.S. history.

Today, July 9, 2014, is the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of another landmark bill that remains less prominent in the public consciousness but has been nonetheless important in shaping our modern lives. In 1964, Johnson signed the Urban Mass Transportation Act into law, creating the administration that changed its name to the Federal Transit Administration in 1991 and cementing the federal government’s role in the funding of public transit systems across the country.

In 1964, people were fleeing the cities for the suburbs, interstate highways were carving urban neighborhoods in half, cars were becoming ubiquitous, and public transit systems — then operated by the private sector — were going out of business. The creation of the UMTA is credited with rescuing many rail and bus systems from going under.

In an interview with WAMU 88.5, the Federal Transit Administration deputy administrator Therese McMillan reflected on the past 50 years and the challenges ahead of the agency.

How did the Urban Mass Transportation Act change the government’s role in public transit?

“When the 1960s came around, what we saw was a market that could no longer make a profit in public transit in large part because the private automobile was gaining much more of a hold in terms of serving mobility and movement. So we began to see as a country disinvestment in public transport, infrastructure beginning to crumble, and in some communities public transit was being abandoned to some degree.

The landmark act that President Johnson signed was a definitive statement that there was a role for federal government in mass transportation. I was looking at President Johnson’s remarks on the act itself where he characterized rush hour as this horror that was enveloping urban America, and that it was critical that we provide some relief for that.”

The debate over how best to move people continues today, so how far have we come in recognizing the role of transit?

“I think we’ve come far, because we need to remember how much this country has grown since 1960. So while we continue to see traffic congestion in any corners, I think we’ve seen a real resurgence in urban America, people wanting to move back to the city as opposed to the suburban flight we saw in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Did the signing of the Urban Mass Transportation Act trigger a large increase in federal spending?

I think in 1964 what we saw was a conscious, deliberate investment in mass transit. That really had not happened before. Since then we’ve seen a continual growth in federal contributions. But I think the important point here is to stress that even in 1964 when the bill was signed, the federal role was seen as a partnership. It was a partnership with states. It was a partnership with local government. Public transit, maybe more than any other transport mode, is local. It shapes communities based on a local vision.

President Johnson in his remarks – and I remember being impressed by this – said, and I am paraphrasing, getting people in and out of New York is not going to be solved in Washington, D.C. It has to be solved in New York. But we can provide funding and we can provide counsel as the federal government, and I think that role is still relevant today.”

Can large transportation projects such as the Purple Line or Silver Line be built without federal money?

“The investment that is needed to get these major transit projects off the ground is substantial. We are seeing projects in the billions of dollars in our New Starts program. But I think it is important to remember that all investment isn’t in the large mega-projects. A huge role for us is providing assistance for much smaller systems in rural and suburban America which need transit as much as the urban areas, in a different fashion, of course.”

How has the FTA improved its operations over the years?

“I think we’ve done a better job in looking at the diversity of what public transportation can be. There has been a bias or a perception that public transit is a big city issue. I think we have done a much better job in illustrating that it is not simply limited to the biggest urban areas in this country.”

Will the FTA’s mission be compromised by a lack of funding?

“I think transportation is too critical to the future of America for that to ever happen, frankly. We as a nation can’t envision a growing economy without a healthy and robust transportation system. That doesn’t happen anywhere in the world let alone this country. I believe public transportation is going to be even more important in the future. With the millennial generation, there have been a number of studies that have shown that they actively want to live in places where mass transportation is available and provides options. I am a member of the aging demographic in this country. There will be a need to serve that population that will not often be able to drive anymore but they want to remain independent.”

Some argue mass transportation projects are not cost-effective and that each and every streetcar system or heavy rail line is not necessary. Can you weigh in on that debate?

“Mass transportation in America is an epitome of the statement one size does not fit all. As the Federal Transit Administration, we have never seen our responsibility to dictate to a local area what is best for them. What we do is have expectations of a local community’s pay for and operate a system once it is in place. We have criteria by which to evaluate projects on several levels: its contributions to economic development, to land use patterns, to environmental benefits. We have never seen our rule as a top-down statement of what is best for you.

Will the advent of autonomous vehicles threaten mass transit?

“We run a great risk in trying to look ahead to the say what is going to be the technological shape of mass transportation. For me and for the FTA, it is less about what public transit is going to look like in terms of technology, and more about whether it is in a position to serve a population that needs it. There will always be a time where there needs to be an option for people who cannot ‘drive,’ whether they are young, older, or in an economic situation where that option is not available to them.”

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