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"What Transit is All About Really is Choice"

Compiled by Light Rail Progress

The following interview with APTA president Bill Millar appeared in the editorial column of the Austin American-Statesman of 5 June 2000.

Rallying the U.S. for rail (and buses)

by William Millar
Austin American-Statesman
Monday, June 5, 2000

William W. Millar is president of the American Public Transportation Association in Washington, D.C. The 1,300- member trade organization represents transit systems, state transportation departments and businesses such as engineering firms and bus manufacturers in North America. He was in Austin recently to speak with board members of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He also talked with Maria Henson, the American-Statesman's deputy editorial page editor.

Q: We saw San Antonio overwhelmingly vote down light rail. We have a U.S. Congressman (Tom DeLay, R-Texas) holding up money for (Houston) light-rail, and on that very day, his committee was approving money for Dallas light rail. How do you view all that from Washington?

A: I don't pretend to understand Texas . . . but Texas looks to me to be a state very much in transition. It's a state certainly with a history of independence and wide, open spaces and all the rest of the lore. And yet it's our second largest state in terms of population. I think you're seeing a transition from the old way of doing things to a new way of doing things. . . . For example, when it comes to thinking about public transit, Texas is a state where 20 or 30 years ago, public transit was truly an afterthought. Yes, some communities had a small bus system, and that was about it. It was the period of the great highway bill. Well, now, we're seeing the result of that -- many good things. If you can afford to own and operate a vehicle, your life is measurably better off. Along with it has come problems of suburban sprawl, problems of the pockets of the population that are left out of the economic growth in some communities, concern about clean air.

In Dallas, they worked for several years thinking about what the right combination of highways and improved public transit would be. The alternative was to vastly improve their bus system and then develop from that into building light rail, which they've opened now. What they've learned is what many people told them, namely that no single mode of transportation is going to solve every problem and that major metropolitan areas need a mix of transportation. As far as I can tell, there's always going to be a need for good streets and good highways. But there's also a need for high-quality transit to help develop your city that much further.

Q: Light rail seems to be in demand all over the country. How many cities are you watching?

A: Dozens and dozens. Of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the country, 47 of those 50 have active rail programs at the moment, meaning they either have their system opened or they are planning or they are constructing a new system or an extension.

And why are communities doing this? One is economic return on investment. Studies are showing now that public transit investment is bringing as many as $6 in benefits for every $1 that gets invested. A lot of communities are concerned about the implications of unfettered sprawl development forever. They are seeking tools that can help manage their land-use growth.

Communities that have had the most successful rail systems understand that it's not just about building a rail line, it's about building rail line as part of a community development strategy.

Q: Given the way cities have developed, particularly in the South, why shouldn't communities not just focus on a bus system and on roads, because they've already got sprawled- out neighborhoods?

A: What do you really want your city to be in the future and not necessarily what is it today? Buses for whatever reason in the United States just don't carry the cachet that rail does. As a result, particularly choice riders -- people who have enough income to afford that second, third or fourth car --if you're hoping to get them to use your public transportation system, it has to be a high-quality public transit system. In this country, that has tended to be . . . either commuter rail or light rail.

That's not to say you can't have a rapid transit bus system. In fact, a good part of my career was spent in Pittsburgh, Pa., where we built both busways and light-rail systems. You can in fact build either. . . . If your goal is to develop beyond attracting the rider who really doesn't have much choice, most communities have decided to turn to high-quality rail of some sort.

Q: You have a specific point of view (as pro-transit), but given that, what would be the framework for citizens to examine this issue of the light-rail vote in November?

A: Most places I go, most citizens don't believe they have any choice in the future of what their community is really like. They just accept that the roads are like the roads are always going to be. Schools are going to be like the schools are now, that the air is going to be like the air is today. The first thing I think the citizenry has to understand is the choices you make today impact tomorrow. I don't know what's revered in this town . . . but there were people just like us sitting around some tables 25, 50, 100 years ago that made decisions that (shaped) the things we revere and we think are great today, and the town is different and better for it. You can make choices. You don't have to take the status quo. Texas is not a state, for example, that has transferred very much money from highway building to transit building. There's no legal reason why that can't happen if the community wanted more investment in public transit.

. . . What transit is all about really is choice. It's allowing people to have true choice in how they travel. There's absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to drive your car, and probably most people will drive their car for many trips. But increasingly people will not need to drive their cars. They will be comfortable walking, they will be comfortable using their bicycle, they will be comfortable using public transit.

Rev. 00/08/27

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