NAPT News & Views — The Washington scene: change in the air

Posted on February 1, 2009

To say that “change” is now the en vogue buzzword in Washington, D.C., would be the understatement of the millennium!

Despite the colossal emphasis on that word in the recent presidential campaign, the reality is that all political elections are about making changes. That’s how our system of government works. Don’t like the status quo? Vote for the person or party committed to changing it!

On Jan. 20 at high noon, Barack Obama got his chance to make changes.

But those expecting drastic new directions may be disappointed. The U.S. remains the world leader precisely because, unlike many other nations, we remain relatively consistent and stable through political shifts. Moreover, most of our international and domestic issues are very difficult to solve, and there are no quick or inexpensive solutions waiting in the wings. “Change” rhetoric of political campaigns invariably gets replaced with the daunting realities of actually governing.

Because there is an entrenched bureaucracy and myriad interest groups that influence the process, Washington changes very, very slowly. So, most of the new president’s senior political nominations are seasoned Washington hands that know the ropes, rather than change agents who would face a steep learning curve.

That said, there will be many gradual adjustments (call them “changes”) in policies as the new team gets the opportunity to move the levers of government.

Focusing in to our interest — pupil transportation — what’s ahead? What are the opportunities and challenges?

The short answer is that there probably will be little, if any, significant “change” for pupil transportation. This is for many reasons, not the least of which is that school transportation is a state matter rather than a federal prerogative. The feds have regulatory authority for the safety and emissions of school buses, but not for their operation.

On the safety front, it remains to be seen whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will reopen its recent final rule regarding occupant protection in school buses. The inside track from NHTSA is that the matter is considered settled. Nonetheless, interest group Public Citizen petitioned the agency to reconsider vagaries in the rule, questioning NHTSA’s “inability to resolve the question of whether seat belts should be installed in large school buses.”

NHTSA’s priorities are set by the Secretary of Transportation (Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood nominated), agency administrator (no nomination as of this writing) and congressional committees. Job 1 certainly will be automotive fuel economy — that will remain the top issue for the foreseeable future. New safety requirements for school buses are unlikely.

Our biggest challenge is a permanent one: Because school buses are an iconic tradition in the U.S. with a stellar performance record, we tend to be taken for granted. That reality is connected directly to our second big challenge: funding. No surprise here — funding problems are likely to get much worse as states struggle with horrendous economic conditions that are depressing tax revenues.

So what are the opportunities? One is to be more visible touting what we do every day to contribute to the community good. For example, the Obama administration is likely to be very intent on promoting the attributes of utilizing mass transit. School buses are mass transit, so we should be emphasizing that in a big way.

This article is titled “Change in the air,” and that’s very apropos to school buses since cleaner emissions (and better fuel economy) for all forms of transportation also will be a major thrust of the Obama administration. Look for additional EPA emissions requirements and efforts to regulate carbon dioxide, as well as California clean air mandates that other states may also adopt.

Our industry has voluntarily done much to promote responsible idling policies, emissions retrofit equipment and replacing older buses with clean diesel or CNG. We should continue to emphasize this but also initiate contacts to collaborate with the Obama administration appointees at the White House, EPA and Department of Energy to expand these activities and encourage more federal financial support for states. The climate (pun not intended) may never be better for our industry to get an interested ear in Washington.

Finally, 2009 marks the expiration of the current federal surface transportation authorization (read: funding), known as “the highway bill.” Traditionally, this reauthorization process is a battle between interests that want to build more roads and bridges versus those who favor transit.

Expect this reauthorization to chart a new course involving financing sources, how to move cargo, traffic congestion relief, road building, transit and more. And all of this is likely to be tied to the Obama administration’s plan for a federal “New New Deal” jobs program that would include work to reinforce transportation infrastructure.

Yellow needs to be engaged in all the changes, large and small!


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