‘Next Starts Here’ For Public Transportation Officials As They Prepare For Future Opportunities, Challenges

By Harrell Kerkhoff Busline Magazine Editor

The 2023 APTA TRANSform Conference & EXPO brought together 650-plus global suppliers and 11,000-plus industry professionals from 88 countries. (Photo by Harrell Kerkhoff, Busline Magazine)

A full house of interested participants recently gathered in Orlando, FL, for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) 2023 TRANSform Conference & EXPO. The event brought together 650-plus global suppliers and 11,000-plus industry professionals from 88 countries. Attendees had the opportunity to engage in workshops, experience technical tours, and network with colleagues. Keynote speakers and educational sessions explored the latest trends in the ever-evolving public transit landscape, addressing pivotal topics such as transformative technology, equity, community building, funding and finance, safety and security, workforce development, global mega projects, and more.

“With millions relying on buses, rail, and ferries for transportation, the significance of public transit extends beyond keeping daily life in motion; it plays a pivotal role in bolstering economic growth and stability,” according to APTA. “The $80 billion a year public transportation industry directly employs 430,000 people and supports millions of private-sector jobs, with public transit directly benefiting local economies in 87 percent of trips.”

“Public transit shapes how people move and interact with communities in a way that both supports and strengthens our nation. Public transportation has proven its ability to drive economic growth, combat climate change, promote equity, and offer sustainable mobility solutions to our nation,” APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas said. “Our industry is extensive and vital, and APTA’s TRANSform Conference & EXPO brings together all facets of our industry.”

Along with Skoutelas, also speaking during the APTA TRANSform Conference & EXPO opening ceremonies in Orlando were APTA Immediate Past Chair Dorval Carter, Jr., who is also president of the Chicago Transit Authority; and incoming APTA Chair Michele Wong Krause, past chair of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors.

“If you remember, the last time we met (for the APTA EXPO in 2021), Congress just signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law. And at last year’s (2022) APTA TRANSform Conference in Seattle, WA, we were already beginning to see the promise and the potential of that historic measure. It was the start of a long-awaited and hard-earned chapter for transit agencies and businesses,” Skoutelas said. “Today, we are here to look back on a momentous year (for public transportation) while also looking ahead to an ambitious future.”

He noted the theme of the 2023 TRANSform Conference & EXPO was “Next Starts Here,” focusing on exciting possibilities that are expected to shape the future of public transportation. Skoutelas added nationwide public transportation ridership numbers continue to grow and is approaching pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, capital projects and new services have started, and the majority of U.S. ballot box transit measures have recently been approved by voters.

Skoutelas also congratulated representatives of public transportation who have worked hard over the years introducing alternative-fueled vehicles, increased routes, expanded services, modernizing aging infrastructure, and using the newest that technology has to offer for more efficient operations. The end-goal of such improvements, he added, is to improve the overall public transportation riding experience.

Challenges, of course, remain. Skoutelas reminded attendees at the opening ceremonies that aspirational goals can only be achieved when public transportation leaders have the courage to tackle difficult issues standing in the way of future needs. Such challenges include workforce shortages, supply chain disruptions, and improvements needed in the procurement process. There is also what Skoutelas called a realignment taking place among several transit related OEM and parts manufacturers. And, emergency COVID funding for public transportation is coming to an end, while many transit agencies are forecasting a fiscal cliff in the future involving operating budgets.

“While those challenges are daunting, they are not beyond our capacity to solve,” Skoutelas said. “Every transportation sector has a challenge, especially during an uncertain economic environment. The good news is, our transit agencies and businesses are already identifying opportunities, thinking differently, implementing new ways of doing business, and changing the way they approach the present and future.”

Also speaking at the opening ceremonies was Dorval Carter, Jr., who shared several public transportation initiatives that have recently taken center stage during the post-pandemic environment. They include:

  • Working on new partnerships with different constituencies to broaden public transportation’s support — “Your expertise, as APTA members, is being sought today by many (different) organizations. As an industry, we are getting ‘a seat at the table’ that was never opened before regarding our industry,” Carter said. “One example of added support is the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ recent resolution supporting public transit’s role in advancing national priorities.”
  • Continuing to share the many benefits of public transportation — To help support full funding for industry programs, APTA has launched a new communications campaign called, “Public Transportation Works for Everyone.” It details how transit benefits businesses, economic growth, and entire communities.

“This campaign works to protect our hard-earned historic funding levels by showing the industry’s value, especially to those in Congress who represent rural communities or places where there is little public transportation. We saw the impact our stories have during the recent APTA Legislative Advocacy Fly-In in Washington, D.C.,” Carter said. “APTA members met with more than 100 members of Congress and their staffs, urging them to fully fund public transportation as authorized by the bipartisan infrastructure law. We are demonstrating how transit investments help large manufacturers and small businesses alike, while also creating new jobs, strengthening communities, and improving life for transit users and non-users.”

  • Advance greater equity within public transportation and by public transportation — “As the first African American to serve as president of the Chicago Transit Authority, and as a proud son of Chicago’s southside, this issue holds special importance to me. My parents instilled a belief that we have a responsibility to serve all people in a way that reflects their value as human beings.”

Michele Wong Krause also spoke during the opening ceremonies, outlying three interconnected “calls to action” as it pertains to public transportation, its users, and its employees.

“That includes continuing to tell the amazing stories that all of you, in this room, are living every day. These are stories that focus on how public transit benefits entire communities, especially businesses. Ridership is no longer the sole metric we should use to measure success. We have also weathered a global pandemic and earned historic federal funding. The world has changed, ridership has changed, and how we think about the future of public transportation has changed. Making a solid business case with elected and appointed officials as to why more transit investment is needed remains essential. That process starts by showing how public transportation helps employers and spurs economic development,” Wong Krause said. “My second call to action concerns our commitment to advance diversity and inclusion throughout the public transportation industry. This is what makes us stronger, more resilient, and creative in our neighborhoods, workplaces, industry, and nation. Let’s make sure that our staffs and policies reflect our community — all our community.

“Finally, as APTA chair, my third call to action is to emphasize the importance of retaining and empowering the next generation of skilled and future-ready transit employees. Last year, 96 percent of transit agencies reported workforce shortages, and 84 percent said those shortages limited their ability to serve the public. We need to fill essential jobs that are currently vacant or will soon become vacant. We also need to retain our current employees who are already experienced and trained. All of this will require a comprehensive plan and fresh thinking. It also means investing in lifelong learning, embracing emerging technologies and designing attractive career paths. Important as well is reimagining the way we define and organize transit jobs, and developing both technical expertise and interpersonal competencies such as social awareness. That is all essential for a productive and competitive workforce.”

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