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Episode 58 Guest Paul Skoutelas

Like many industries, public transportation is adapting to the dramatic impact of COVID-19 on our communities. APTA President and CEO Paul Skoutelas shares how their team is supporting critical public transit needs, advocating for federal relief, and engaging with stakeholders.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Skoutelas: Paul Skoutelas

Cohen: With COVID-19, we are in uncertain times; and like many industries, public transportation is reeling as government restrictions dramatically reduce transit demand even as critical workers like nurses still need a functioning transit system. American Public Transportation Association president and CEO Paul Skoutelas shares how APTA is supporting its members to meet the needs of the community. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Paul Skoutelas, the president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association. Before he stepped into this role with APTA in 2018, he was the senior vice president for WSP and CEO of two major transit organizations, Lynx in Orlando, Florida and the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Welcome to The Movement, Paul.
Skoutelas: Well, thank you, Josh. Good to be with you.

Cohen: So let’s get right to what is on everyone’s mind right now, which is COVID-19. Obviously, I think, it’s been a huge, huge impact to not just public transportation but to the whole U.S. economy and to many people around the world. So we’re already seeing huge ridership impacts on public transit, and I expect we’ll see more as various restrictions like the sheltering in place that’s happening right now in the Bay Area.

So I’d love to maybe hear a little bit more about what APTA is doing to respond to this crisis both from the perspective of ensuring that we’re providing service to those who need it, protecting the folks in the transit industry who are on the front lines providing the service like our operators, and then ensuring the long-term sustainability of this public good that is public transportation. So I know there’s a lot there, but maybe help frame out a little bit about what you guys have been working there at APTA to help in the industry.

Skoutelas: Sure. Josh, thank you for that. And thanks for this opportunity to have a conversation with you about this. You know, we find ourselves as a society and really even as a world facing unprecedented challenges here. Certainly here in the U.S., in the states with regards to what’s happening, it means every effort is being made really to preserve the basic set of services that we’re providing to our members, that they in turn can then provide the daily service that their patrons, their riders depend on to get to those vital set of services. In some cases it’s still getting to work, although what we’ve seen now is a tremendous movement to telecommuting and telework. But still there are groupings of employees that have to be there.

Nurses have to get to the hospitals. Nurses have to get to other healthcare facilities. People have got to get to critical appointments. So there’s a whole grouping of employees, firefighters, police, that need to get to where they need to go to conduct their business and truly safeguard our interest as a public. So we are doing everything we possibly can here at APTA to support our members. While we’re not on the front lines as our individual transit agencies are, there’s a lot we can and are doing to support them.

You know, it’s interesting. Our transit agencies, it’s in their DNA, and that is to serve the public. That’s their overarching mission. And so it’s really ingrained in the training that the employees, bus operators, rail operators, supporting operating personnel, even the administrative staff of these agencies—they really understand that it’s their absolute mission every day to serve the public. So I think right now what we’re sensing and seeing is that they’re going to great lengths to try and preserve as much of what they can provide for people.

It is extraordinarily challenging, given the fact that all of these declarations both at the federal level through the CDC, through local health organizations, through the World Health Organization, are all putting requirements to keep us safe. And so social distancing has really created added requirements on the part of public transit, so we’re putting out and sharing information among our members to help them do the best job they can to clean their facilities, their rolling stock, their buses, the rail stations. And they’re doing, I think, an extraordinary job at that.

Some interesting things are going on. Just in the last day we’ve had a series of town halls with our chief executive officers, our CEOs directly. So we’ve talked to commuter rail CEOs at a special town hall; we’ve had our bus CEOs as another one and our rail CEOs. And we’ve learned some interesting things that they’re doing. For example on the bus side, operators, many of them, are moving to only rear-door exit and entrance in order to keep riders distant as much as possible from the operator, both to safeguard the rider but also to safeguard the operator. And that is part of the challenge that our agencies are having. In order to preserve some semblance of service to the public and to those groups that I mentioned, they need to make sure that they’re doing everything they can to safeguard the health of their employees.

So we’re seeing those kind of innovations. You know, the robust cleaning efforts continue literally around the clock, but we’re also seeing the effects of what these various declarations have meant in terms of just providing daily service. So here in Washington, D.C. where I reside we’ve seen that WMATA, the Washington Metro system, went to alternate service schedules, service levels of service on Monday. They went to a Saturday schedule, which is a much more reduced level, and then just yesterday announced that effective today they’re decreasing the service levels even further.

And that’s a direct response to a couple of things. Number one, what we have seen happen is that fewer people are riding, and so ridership on many of the public systems now is down 40%, 50%, 60% depending on which mode we’re talking about, and I think that that’s only going to continue to decrease here in the short term. We’re seeing that, you know, there are issues of their sustainability in terms of being able to continue to operate and incur the kind of losses that they’re incurring in fare revenue, which is an immediate drop of revenue for many.

I can tell you that in Chicago just on Monday the Chicago Transit Authority, CTA, lost a million dollars in fare revenue in one single day. And locations, Philadelphia, Boston, have reported their estimate is that they’re losing minimally $10 million per week of operation. And, again, these are not static numbers; so as we’re seeing each day unfold, in all likelihood these numbers are dropping. So we have lots of challenges.

What we’re doing as APTA—we’re not on the front lines with our agencies, but we are behind that line helping them however we can. As I mentioned a moment ago, we’ve had three series of town hall meetings just yesterday sharing information amongst the CEOs, what’s working in one city, in one system, can it be done elsewhere, helping them to be sure that they’re in constant dialogue, because at a time like this the information sharing is so critical. We have more sessions scheduled. Tomorrow we will do a full webinar on paratransit. The criticality of that is, you know, paratransit operations are really transporting people who have very special needs, elderly people, people with disabilities, people who need to get to kidney dialysis and the like. So there’s special needs, special precautions for our paratransit operators, and so we’re having, again, a town hall to share information in that regard.

Yesterday I was able to participate in a call with FTA Acting Administrator Jane Williams. She had her entire team with her virtually. And I was on that call with her along with my colleague Scott Bogren who leads the Community Transportation Association of America, CTAA. And we’re talking about ways that we can help our agencies to be sure that, again, they get the kind of support they need to meet the needs of their communities. A very, very helpful call. Again, I want to thank Jane Williams for her leadership on this. We’ve got another call scheduled here in another day to compare notes.

So this is an ongoing process, and it’s not like there’s a playbook for this. It doesn’t exist. We’re really facing unprecedented times, but I think that it’s key that we maintain our communication effort, and I think that’s really one of the overarching themes for us at APTA, communicate and communicate. I just put out an email address—excuse me—a video address yesterday to our members. We’ve established a special email hotline,, and it is specifically to take questions from any of our members about what’s on their mind, what’s critical to them. We will receive that; we’ll hand it off to one of our experts at APTA, one of our people who are capable in that area, and get back to them as quickly as possible with either an answer or a referral; again, one more way that we can provide almost instantaneous feedback to our members as they’re working through the issues that they’re dealing with.

Cohen: For sure. I think there’s going to be ripple effects of this for a long, long time and obviously the way that public transit is funded both on the capital side, partly from the federal government, and certainly the sales tax revenue like in a lot of communities like our community here in Durham, North Carolina. Have you thought at all about what changes might need to be made or what kind of relief public transit might need to ask for at a federal level to address some of these foundational issues that are going to impact transit funding, not just getting through the immediate, acute problem that we’re in now but kind of the long-term sustainability issue that public transit is now going to face with the double whammy of the impact of the federal issues as well as the local sales tax?

Skoutelas: Josh, absolutely. We’re thinking both of the immediate, because that’s what’s in front of us that we’ve got to cope with as an industry, as well as some of the longer term, but in terms of priorities, certainly dealing with the day-to-day. And I will simply share with you that we’re working very closely with the FTA, Federal Transit Administration, and with Congress directly.

As you know, right now Congress is working through a series of legislative pieces to address the crisis, one that has dealt with trying to address our workers throughout the U.S. in every industry in terms of making sure that they’ve got an appropriate level of absence provisions, that they’re providing them some resources that they maintain. Because we look around; and what do we see? We see businesses are shuttered or have dramatically reduced hours. And so the federal government is working through a whole series of legislative initiatives, and we are engaged in that process.

We’ve made a request as of yesterday to Congress, a request for some $12.9 billion as immediate relief that the industry needs. And that is to do a number of things that you just touched on. First of all, we have direct costs that the agencies are absorbing each and every day above and beyond anything that they had budgeted for or are able to provide. And that comes in the form of additional, more robust cleaning at stations and rolling stock, protecting their employees through whatever means they can, this issue of farebox as I mentioned a moment ago, dramatic reductions in ridership for obvious reasons with these declarations. And so agencies are seeing huge reductions in farebox collection. That impacts their ability to have the kind of cash flow that they need to continue to buy equipment and service and the like.

And then the other, which you also mentioned, is that in a bit of the longer term—although it’s not that long. I would say in the mid term there’s the issue of the reductions in sales tax revenue. If there’s no business activity, that income is not coming into local communities, and the agencies are not benefitting from having that as a tax support. And so we are looking to address that with some immediate action through congress, and we’re not alone in that regard, as certainly you must have heard where the airline industry, the cruise line industry, a number of industries are really desperate for infusion of resource of cash. And transit is no different here in order to sustain our operations at some level.

Beyond that, I think we’re going to be thinking about what this means in terms of how quickly our communities and cities can get back on their feet, how quickly people could get back to work. Certainly in the shorter term I would imagine when we get through this there’s going to be some changes in travel behavior, and we’re going to have to continue to watch and monitor all that. My own belief—and, again, only time will tell who is correct on this. My own belief is ultimately we’re a society that really thrives on people interacting together and working together and going to restaurants and enjoying the virtues of what we have as a wonderful community life. So I think that that will necessitate even more in the longer term a good, robust, well planned transit systems and transit networks. But in the immediate we’re in change times, reset the clock so to speak, and dealing with the pressures of needing to address the current issues that we have.

And that’s where our focus is really, even though we know that those are other issues that from a policy standpoint will ultimately need to be addressed. Right now it’s doing the best we can, safeguard our customers, our riders in the industry, safeguard our employees who have to deliver those services, make sure that we address the issues of funding that the agencies need immediately, and certainly to continue to share information amongst each other in the industry.

Cohen: That sounds great. I’d like to wrap up with this; you’re leading a major industry organization now; you’ve led public transit agencies in the past; you’re a leader. So I’m curious what things you’ve learned about leadership that are critical now in this really trying time not only for you and your team but for the whole industry and really the whole country and whole world. What things are really resonating with you that you’ve learned throughout your career that are critically important now, that you’re applying?

Skoutelas: Well, thank you, Josh, for that question. There are a couple of things that quickly come to mind, and certainly I believe I’m practicing them, but I know that my colleagues who lead our transit organizations and really it’s also true on the business-member side whom I know very well what they do. You know, it takes full engagement on the part of the organization’s leader or leaders. And certainly in my role as the CEO of APTA and the roles that I’ve played in transit agencies, you have to be fully engaged. And people need to see and hear from you directly about where things are, giving them a candid assessment of what’s happening, enlisting their support in order to follow through on the things that have been identified as priorities.

So in our case, for example here at APTA, we have been on remote telework now for—let’s see—five days. And we will continue through the 31st of March, at least to that point. But we’re engaged virtually. I just concluded before my joining you here for this discussion on a two-hour staff meeting call, a virtual call with my team reviewing our assignments, responsibilities, the activities that we’re doing, communicating where we are at the moment and what we’re trying to accomplish.

And so, I think, for a leader it’s stepping up, it’s being engaged fully, it’s making sure our people, our staff, our operating personnel know what is happening, and making sure that they’ve got the kind of support that they need to carry our their duties, because in most instances they’re doing extremely difficult work in trying circumstances. So communication is really key with that, and I think it’s been an overused term over time. You know, you can’t over communicate, but at times like this making sure that your organization feels connected. And I think in the environment we’re working in today where, again, a lot of people are working remotely and such, it’s easy to get a bit distracted, to feel a bit disconnected. We’re working very hard at APTA not to allow that to happen. And it’s going on through my own calls in meetings virtually with my team. My team is then doing it with their staffs and then making sure that we’re sharing information around so we can best, again, meet the needs of our members.

And I know much of this is going on within the industry as well, from our dialogue. And, again, one purpose of the town halls that we had just yesterday with the CEOs was to hear what they’re doing, what their existing challenges are, how they’re communicating. So, you know, I think this is just the time to step up and do whatever is necessary in order to help our communities, to help our employees, and help our customers.

Cohen: Well, I’m grateful for that leadership. Before we go, will you mention again that email address that folks can use to get information and if there’s any other resources from APTA that you want to make sure people know about?

Skoutelas: Thank you, Josh. Thank you for that opportunity. Yes, first and foremost, people can go to our APTA website. And directly on that website they will see a particular section just dedicated to Coronavirus. And so there’s a lot of information that’s posted there, information from CDC, the World Health Organization, prior work that’s been done that’s relevant from the Transportation Research Board, various organizational public agency plans of how they deal with these kinds of crisis. So that’s a great resource.

In addition, we have set up a very special hotline email address, and that address is CoronavirusQuestions—that’s one word— And there they can pose a question, an email to us. We will look at that very quickly, and get that in the right hands of the person to be able to respond, and in short order have an answer for our members. So it’s a critical, we think, a very critical resource opportunity to make sure that we’re really speaking to one another here in real time and can provide whatever information or suggestions that are appropriate.

Cohen: That sounds great. Well, Paul, thank you again for your leadership and for all that public transit is doing. I know your team is working hard, but I also know that your member agencies and your business-member partners are also doing a lot of work behind the scenes and in front of the scenes, really, to help keep everything humming as much as possible in this challenging time. So thank you so much, and keep up the good work.

Skoutelas: Well, Josh, thank you for that. And I think we do have a great industry of our business members who provide innovation and expertise and our public members. And it truly is a partnership that has worked well for the industry. And I’m confident that if we continue to work as we have we will continue to make great strides. So thank you for this opportunity to chat with you.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.