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The massive traffic jams heading out of Houston as residents attempted to flee Hurricane Rita show that more planning work needs to be done, said Bill Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association at the group’s annual conference and triannual exposition in Dallas Sept. 25-28. "Imagine if they had had more alternatives to a car...there is more that public transit could do in these situations," he added.

Gary Thomas, president of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system, noted that DART carried 450 evacuees on freight rail tracks from the Houston area to Dallas. "More than anything, it’s about coordination," said Thomas. He said the agency will evaluate its evacuation plan and its relationship with the freight railroads.

Overall, transit officials were savoring the $52.6 billion in federal funding allotted to transit over six years while pondering the changes in new legislation for construction and rising fuel prices. Although many transit systems are reporting a spike in ridership as fuel prices rise, "our systems do not yet have enough growth to offset diesel fuel costs" for themselves, said Millar.

Operating costs also are higher due to security issues, Millar noted. "The government has spent up to $18 billion on the aviation system...and less than $350 million in transit security," he said.

Millar said he has suggested to the federal Transportation Security Administration that security funds go straight to the Federal Transit Administration, which could directly administer security contracts. Transit agencies currently must battle time-consuming red tape, he said. "They apply to the states, the states apply to the feds, the feds come back to the states with questions," he explained.

Panelists at the meeting also discussed some of the changes in the federal mass transit program. These include incentives for new transit projects, where an agency may keep the money left over if its project comes in under budget. Agencies building transit projects costing less than $250 million now can combine preliminary engineering and final design approval in applying for grants.

Officials hailed bipartisan congressional efforts to fund Amtrak. House and Senate bills suggest tax-credit bonds and multiyear funding as high as $1.2 billion a year. "We need Amtrak," said Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation rail manager Randall Wade, citing $227 million in planned rail construction for a 110-mph corridor between Milwaukee and Madison that Amtrak will operate.

ass transit’s role in the U.S. is evolving rapidly due to rising fuel prices and hurricanes that highlight the need for efficient mass evacuations.