It’s time to get Sustainability off the starting blocks.

by Mariia Zimmerman


(FTA Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan, photo courtesy Pat Ryan, Business Visuals)

(FTA Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan, photo courtesy Pat Ryan, Business Visuals)

Earlier this week I travelled to Philadelphia to join other transit professionals at the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) 8th annual Sustainability and Public Transportation Workshop.   Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of inspiring stories from the Philadelphia/Delaware River Valley Region. Of particular inspiration is the work by the regional transit provider, SEPTA, to be an active partner in Mayor Nutter’s efforts to green the City and re-engineer the transit agency to be a global sustainability leader.

A high point of the Workshop was remarks by Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Deputy Administrator Therese McMillan. She spoke about new opportunities in the recently passed federal transportation legislation, MAP-21, to mainstream sustainability.

“No single program within MAP-21 is dedicated to livability yet EVERY formula dollar can be used for this if you, as the project sponsor, want it to happen.”

The cancellation of a multitude of specialized programs and discretionary transportation funding pots in MAP-21 means that more than ever before, transportation dollars will flow directly to state transportation departments, local or regional transit agencies and metropolitan planning organizations. Typically, formula funds come with very little direction by the federal government in their use, and are distributed based on factors like population size, number of lane miles or transit riders and not on performance.

Smaller programs to support bicycling, safety, people with disabilities, etc. were merged into larger formula programs, theoretically to provide greater flexibility. This means potentially greater opportunity for advancing bike, pedestrian, transit and smart land use decisions along with well-designed highway projects IF agencies choose to plan and invest in them with their dollars. In short, the action moves to state and regional transportation tables in advancing our nation’s livability and economic competitiveness. It will be critical that everyone be invited to the table to shape these decisions. (Or elbow your way into the room if not invited.)

Having witnessed the amazing demand for federal livability funds during my recent time in the Administration (i.e. over $100 billion requested for the roughly $4 billion awarded by EPA, HUD and DOT over 3 years), I remain convinced that America’s cities, regions and states are eager to create a more integrated transportation system that better links people to jobs, housing and greater mobility choices. Many transportation trade organizations and groups like Transportation for America are providing analysis of the new legislation, with more to come as the implementation details take shape.   Yet as McMillan noted: the real story and action will occur locally. In the Olympic spirit, McMillan calls on us to be “sustainability athletes” and get off the starting blocks. We need to push to mainstream Livability within all transportation investments, starting with formula funds. We have the tools to do this. The federal government stands ready to be a coach (and sponsor). Let’s hope we go for the gold … and not fail to qualify.