Challenges and Opportunities Ahead for Rail


APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas delivers his closing remarks.

Industry leaders described the great opportunities ahead for rail, thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, at the Closing General Session of APTA’s 2024 Rail Conference.

APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas, who gave his conference closing remarks, told attendees that, when President Biden called the Act the biggest investment in American history, it was “not a hyperbole. That is the case.” Session moderator Julie Kirschbaum, director of transit, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, added that “none of these projects would have been possible without the support of federal funds.” Sixty-six billion dollars will be dedicated to rail, with 18 billion of that designated for new passenger service on new corridors. There is also money for replacing aging infrastructure, establishment of interstate compacts, and paying for the start of operating costs of new systems.

With funds allocated, now it is up to Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation CEO Lori Kahikina to get 19 miles of rail running smoothly. “What we are really doing in Honolulu is building a bridge. Ours is an elevated system.” She has “high hopes” that the agency will finish 21 miles to downtown Honolulu by 2030.

From left: Julie Kirschbaum, Lori Kahikina, Jessica Mefford-Miller, Michelle Bouchard.

Michelle Bouchard, executive director of Caltrain, described how the agency is creating the first electrified rail line running from downtown San Francisco, through the Valley to Gilroy. “There are some kids on the peninsula that are going to grow up never smelling diesel fumes,” she said. “We will have a completely emission-free corridor.” The project has, however, has not been without its challenges, with the agency striving to address every operational scenario beforehand. “You think you know what it is like to operate a system. Come and talk to me in six months after we turn it on,” said Bouchard.

Jessica Mefford-Miller, chief executive officer, Valley Metro, Phoenix, AZ, discussed the agency’s new streetcar service in Tempe and the imminent opening of five additional and much needed miles, stating “our economy and our population growth are as hot as our climate.” She stressed, though, being deliberate in engaging local communities as construction projects “are messy, and noisy, and long sometimes.”

The overall takeaway from the panel to aspiring leaders was: know your subject matter better and faster; keep pushing; and that it is difficult to assemble a diverse leadership team if an agency has not already been building those leaders on their way up.

View more images from the conference here.