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 Telling Our Story: A Capitol Hill Event

Thousands Across America Sign Petitions

by Susan Berlin, Senior Editor
Passenger Transport, September 27, 2010


Standing behind the pyramid of petition boxes are, from left, WMATA Interim General Manager Richard Sarles; APTA President William Millar; Dave Rock; Althea Smith; Deanna Droira-Garcia; Carter; Rep. James L. Oberstar; Rosa Navejar; and Jonathan Maas. Photo by Steve Barrett.

Public transportation supporters from across the nation gathered Sept. 22 in Washington, DC, to present petitions to Congress in support of a long-term transportation authorization bill. Thousands of people signed the petitions as part of APTA Chair M.P. Carter’s “Telling Our Story” initiative, and the petition is still available to be signed online at www.publictransportation.org.

APTA President William Millar welcomed the crowd at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) Federal Center South West Station near the Capitol.

“I’m flattered that my colleagues from across the country have chosen to hold this event at our doorstep,” said WMATA Interim General Manager Richard Sarles. “I ride Metro every day and I see people going to work, to school, mothers with their children, older riders — the entire society. But we can’t provide service alone; we need the support of the federal government.”

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), who represents Memphis — Carter’s home city — spoke about the role of public transportation, specifically buses, in the public consciousness. “Public transportation needs to be a focus for the future,” he emphasized. “People should have a right to transportation; they can’t just depend on the automobile. We need to make sure all forms of transportation are available. Public transit is not only efficient, it brings people together.”

He cited the importance of transportation to the U.S. economy, pointing out that “a whole lot of buses wouldn’t be out there” and unemployment levels would be even higher were it not for the transit projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). “As you tell your story, be sure to share the benefits of ARRA,” he added.


APTA Chair M.P. Carter expresses her thanks to her member of Congress, Rep. Steve Cohen. Photo by Steve Barrett.

Cohen then introduced Carter, who gave a brief retrospective of the “Telling Our Story” effort — the signature initiative of her term as chair and “the capstone of an effort begun nearly one year ago.”

Designed, she said, “to let elected officials hear that we must have significantly increased federal investment [in public transportation] — state and local, too, while we’re at it! — it’s also to show them that the American people are squarely behind them in supporting more public transit investment.” She continued: “Our buses surrounding us here tell the story of why public transit is so critical. For certain, public transit not only helps people get to their jobs — it also creates jobs.”

“Starting last October, as APTA chair, I asked people to tell anyone who would listen how public transportation saves energy, saves fuel, saves time, and saves money,” she said. “And on top of that — it gets us to places that are important to our quality of life. And Americans responded!”

She also noted that 5,000 citizens provided comments in support of transit at hearings throughout the country, and announced the creation of APTA’s Online Wall: a collection of testimonials from riders and community leaders gathered over the past year, available to view at www.publictransportation.org. APTA is continuing to gather even more stories, so the wall can become the collective voice of Americans as they express the importance of public transportation and urge Congress to increase funding for public transportation by passing a multi-year surface transportation authorization bill.


Oberstar addresses the crowd from behind the pyramid of boxes. At right, partially obscured, is Rosa Navejar. Photo by Mitch Wood.

The keynote speaker — Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — called on Americans to “make a mode shift to transit” as he addressed the event. In acknowledging the thousands of petitions signed by Americans urging increased federal investment in public transportation, he said: “These petitions are the first start. They are going to bring about a change in public policy for an America that cares!”

Oberstar reported on the success of ARRA in supporting public transit infrastructure, noting that the legislation enabled the purchase of 12,600 transit buses and the development or improvement of 5,000 transit stations. “We’ve made a great start; now we need to continue it,” he said, adding: “If all of America rallies around and says ‘this is for the health and good of our communities’ — we can pass this bill and make America whole again.”

He said of the APTA petition effort: “You start with a petition, and we end with something good — we show the nation that we care about our infrastructure.”

Five Very Personal Stories

Five public transit supporters from across the U.S. participated in the event, describing the importance of public transit to achieving their goals and maintaining their quality of life.


Althea Smith of Aiken, SC, meets with House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) in his office. Photo by Susan Richards.

Althea Smith of Aiken, SC, spoke about how she was initially unable to obtain a job and support her family until she found reliable transportation — public transit. “It takes me wherever I need to go as far as work, school, the grocery store,” she said.

“Plus, when you have three small children and money is tight, you sometimes must choose between a house and a car,” she said. “Because we had the transit system, I could put a roof over our heads. I’ve always used public transit, and now my 15-year-old daughter also uses it.”

Deanna Droira-Garcia of Pembroke Pines, FL, is an account executive for Radio Disney who travels extensively for her job throughout southern Florida. After being diagnosed with epilepsy last year, she became familiar with the region’s public transit systems.

“I couldn’t drive for most of last year through April of this year. But by using public transportation, I not only could do my job, but also — last March I was awarded top salesperson of the month for my region!” she said. “Not being able to drive made me feel very limited, but with public transportation I could do my best. I could perform.”

Rosa Navejar of Fort Worth, TX, president and chief executive officer of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, described the importance of public transit to the business community. “I consider public transportation an important piece of economic development,” said Navejar, who also serves on the Fort Worth Transportation Authority Board of Directors. “It makes the connection for people to live, work, and play. It builds capacities for small businesses — it gives everybody the opportunity not only to have the entrepreneurial spirit, but also to make it work. It’s part of the American dream.”


Bus company representatives participating in the event are, from left, James P. Tooley of Nova Bus, John Richardson of Daimler Buses, Michael Melaniphy of MCI, and Joel Abraman of New Flyer. Carter is at the podium. Photo by Steve Barrett.

Dave Rock, an electrician at New Flyer in Crookston, MN, gave the perspective of a transit industry employee. “How am I a part of public transportation?” he asked. “I build it!” he answered, describing how at New Flyer he became the first electrician in the country to work on creating hybrid-electric buses.

“A lot of the people who work in the New Flyer plant with me are basically rural people with rural job experience,” he noted, adding: “It’s very clear that public transit creates jobs, not only for me, but for all the workers.”

Jonathan Maas of Los Angeles, a producer of television shows on environmental and scientific topics, called public transportation “the overlooked cure to so many of our ills…. It’s one of the few things I feel that — everything is good about it. There’s no downside.”

He continued: “I want to get young people interested in public transportation to help save our planet. On the West Coast, public transit has an unfair image problem. So my thinking is — and stay with me for a moment! — I’m a vegetarian. I’m not looking for everyone to become a vegetarian, but I say: Just make it a habit once a week. It’s the same for public transportation. Just try it once a week — and see what happens!”

 Wrapped with APTA’s 3Es and a Q message, buses from four U.S. manufacturers — New Flyer, Motor Coach Industries (MCI), Daimler Buses North America, and Nova Bus — traveled many miles to participate in the event. Convening at the station, they served as both a colorful and informative backdrop to the day. Representatives of the companies who spoke at the event were Joel Abraman, director of Eastern U.S. sales for New Flyer; Michael Melaniphy, vice president, public sector, for MCI; John Richardson, regional sales manager for Daimler Buses; and James P. Tooley, plant manager with Nova Bus in Plattsburgh, NY.

At the end of the program, several citizen-advocates along with APTA officials boarded the buses and went to the U.S. Capitol to present the petition to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) staff, and to meet with House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC).


Millar, Carter, and other participants in the event meet with Erik Stallman, at left, a staff member for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo by Steve Barrett.

The former group, which included APTA President William Millar, APTA Chair M.P. Carter, APTA Vice Chair-Human Resources Doran Barnes, and three of the citizen advocates (Maas, Navajar, and Droira-Garcia), met with Pelosi’s transportation aide, Erik Stallman. Carter stressed the importance of securing a long-term surface transportation authorization bill as soon as possible, and then the citizen-advocates told their stories of what public transportation means to them.

Smith — a citizen-advocate with a South Carolina story to tell — met with Clyburn. She and others first spoke with Clyburn’s legislative director, Danny Cromer, about the prospects for a multi-year authorization bill in the year ahead. When Smith introduced herself to Clyburn, he assured her that he needed no convincing on the value of public transportation to his constituents and that he was a strong supporter of the federal transit program.

At the end of the day, Carter put it simply: “It was a wonderful event. We had stories to tell, we had people who listened. We could not have asked for anything more.”

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