RAILWAY AGE, JULY 2021 ISSUE: “You have to step out of your comfort zone if you want to see change,” says Anne Canby. Throughout her remarkable transportation career, she has embraced that mindset.
In June 2021, Anne P. Canby stepped down as Director of the OneRail Coalition, her latest role in a remarkable transportation career. From 1977 to 1981, Canby served under President Carter as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs at the USDOT. From 1981 to 1982 she was Assistant Commissioner and then Commissioner of the New Jersey DOT. After working in the private sector and for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Canby served eight years from 1993 to 2001 as Secretary of the Delaware DOT.
Canby afterward led the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, and in 2008 started OneRail. Canby has been widely recognized for her leading advocacy of multimodal solutions for transportation. Among her numerous honors, in 2006 the Transportation Research Board awarded her the W.N. Carey, Jr. distinguished service award, and in 2005 the Women’s Transportation Seminar named her International Woman of the Year.
Contributing Editor Don Itzkoff, who co-founded the OneRail Coalition with Canby and served as OneRail’s first policy counsel, spoke with her.
DON ITZKOFF: How did you get started in transportation?
ANNE CANBY: What got me interested initially were the long gas lines and the urban riots back in the early seventies. And I wondered, “Maybe transportation could help tie things together in a better way—help rebuild our cities and get us out of those miserable gas lines.” At that time, I was with the National Committee for an Effective Congress. I soon decided I didn’t want to keep doing political work for the rest of my life, so when President Carter was elected, this opened new opportunities, and transportation seemed a good idea.
DI: What did you learn from working in Washington at USDOT during the Carter Administration?
AC: When I came to the DOT, I knew very little about transportation, but I had the great, good fortune of working for Mort Downey, who was then the Assistant Secretary for Budget and Programs, and a very close aide to Secretary Brock Adams. Being in the budget shop exposed me to all aspects of transportation. I was like a sponge, trying to learn as much as possible. While at DOT, my focus was more on urban transportation issues, transit and planning, and not so much on rail.
DI: Then you moved over to the NJDOT, first as Assistant Commissioner and then Commissioner.
AC: Having the opportunity to work at the NJDOT provided me the perspective of transportation from the state level. I was lucky to work with another of the transportation “greats,” Lou Gambaccini. NJ Transit had just been created, and the state had enacted a big funding package, so there was much to do to make sure the program accomplished what had been promised.
DI: After NJDOT, you worked in the private sector and with the MBTA, and in 1993 you became Secretary of the Delaware DOT. DelDOT cites you as one of its 10 historical figures and notes, “Advocating for sustainable development and multimodal options, her tenure and philosophy coincided with national initiatives to minimize environmental impacts from highways . . . [Canby] moved the Department from a highway focus to a transportation focus.” Why did you become so committed to multimodal thinking?
AC: Remember ISTEA had just been enacted. That was thought to be a sea change. Construction of the Interstate system was coming to a close, so what was next?
We have many different transportation modes but we’ve put so much emphasis on highways that we’ve often treated the other modes as though they were, well, the “other modes.” There are proper roles for walking, biking, transit, automobile, intercity rail, freight rail, air and marine. But we operate in such modal silos, it’s hard to conceive of and actually operationalize truly integrated, multimodal thinking. My work at the state level cemented my view that we have to think in a more integrated, multimodal way if we are serious about addressing safety, congestion, urban form and, ultimately, the climate challenge.
The highway system in so many parts of our country is so overstressed, it can’t handle more traffic. We have to figure out how to move both people and goods more efficiently, how to manage demand, and how to develop a coherent vision that leads to better outcomes across a whole range of concerns, whether it be safety, sprawl, environment, climate, you name it.
DI: How did your colleagues at other state DOTs—especially those which considered themselves “highway departments”—react to your emphasis on multimodalism?
AC: A lot of them didn’t like it. Some said they didn’t want the flexibility to use highway funds for other modal investments including rail. I told them, “You don’t have to do it. Just give me the flexibility so I can invest in what my state needs.” I think what scared the established highway crowd the most was if you open up the idea that there’s flexibility, outsiders might pick up on that and push them to do things differently. Change is always a little scary, but having flexibility can produce very positive outcomes. Just look at the rail projects that have emerged from the USDOT’s discretionary programs.
When I joined the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership (STPP) we helped transit, bike and walking advocates understand how to work better with the state DOTs and understand when to take “yes” for an answer. Achieving change requires patience, persistence and listening. It takes time to have the conversations and learn other perspectives. If you aren’t willing to listen to each other, change gets really hard to accomplish.
DI: From your foundation at STPP, you created the OneRail Coalition.
AC: In 2008, another cycle of reauthorization was coming up. As I recall, there was some ridiculous conversation about the need to double the Interstate system, which struck me as beyond crazy. That couldn’t be the only way to deal with growth. I felt that rail, and freight rail particularly, was a totally under-appreciated part of the transportation system.
Everyone sees trucks, but few understand what freight rail contributes to the transportation system, not to mention to the economy. Likewise, so many regions of the U.S. have no passenger rail service so it doesn’t even come up as an option. Building more visibility for rail seemed worth a try. Plus, it was clear that climate was going to be a big issue. Rail is perfectly suited to address sustainability challenges and improve overall safety, yet in some ways it was the forgotten or ignored mode.
At the same time, Matt Rose with BNSF and Frank Busalacchi with Wisconsin DOT were finishing up their roles on the National Surface Transportation Policy Revenue Study Commission, and looking at how they could keep their emphasis on rail going. You and I met with lots of people. AAR came on board. APTA, Amtrak and the short lines wanted to join. Labor was interested. Other stakeholders including suppliers and engineering firms wanted in, and it all made sense.
DI: What keeps OneRail together?
AC: The rail sector, like other modes, has a number of aspects—public and private owner/operators, labor, suppliers and more. What everyone recognized was that rail could benefit by expanding awareness of the value and contributions it makes to the transportation system overall. We made it clear early on that OneRail was not the place to settle internal disagreements.
Over the years, OneRail has helped raise the profile of rail through our messaging, reports, polling, policy positions, forums and other outreach. The key is to find common ground among sometimes disparate interests to push for better outcomes for safety, for the environment, for the economy. If we were really serious about safety being the number one priority, we’d be moving a lot more freight and people on rail, which is far safer than by road.
DI: Beyond assuring safety, what are some of the key policy challenges ahead for rail?
AC: While OneRail has helped raise the profile of rail, we still live in a highway-centric world. So for me, the first challenge is to move out of our modal silos and open our thinking to focus on the best way to move freight and people to support our economy, protect our environment, improve access and provide good paying U.S. jobs. “Fixing the highway trust fund” might not be the most important issue. Instead, spreading travel demand across multiple modes would relieve the stress on the highway network, benefit multiple communities and provide safer, more reliable service.
Overall, establishing predictable and reliable funding sources to support equitable investment in all of our transportation systems is perhaps the biggest challenge. Unlike highways, air and to some degree transit, Amtrak must rely on annual appropriations, an unpredictable and inefficient situation at best. Never having had a reliable, let alone adequate, source of capital has left Amtrak’s infrastructure with a significant backlog of replacement and rehabilitation needs. For high-speed rail, cost projections for some of the new rail corridors have big numbers, creating pushback. Imagine the hullabaloo that would have erupted if people had known at the outset how much it was going to cost to build the Interstate system.
Freight railroads present different policy challenges. To ensure that rail is in a position to meet growing demand, freight railroads must be able to earn adequate revenue to invest in their networks and expand their customer base. It would help if the trucking folks paid their full share for their use of the road network. Short line railroads benefit from having access to public funding for capital commensurate with public benefits, allowing them to expand and improve their services for shippers.
Moving to a new paradigm is partly institutional, partly process; state DOTs focus on the road systems they’re responsible for, privately owned freight rail and Amtrak have their own priorities. Regulatory approaches need to change too—as just one example, the NEPA process has become a checklist rather than a real decision-making tool.
DI: But achieving positive outcomes takes more than just well-reasoned talk.
AC: Under the direction of the Biden-Harris Administration, we have the chance to set a path for transformative investments across the transportation spectrum incorporating every mode. Their revised criteria and priorities can ignite the creative juices to come up with new ways to address the perennial issues on the highway side. Freight and passenger rail can be part of a new paradigm. In determining what investment to make to address a particular problem, the process should be mode-agnostic in identifying the best investment. Rail may often be the better answer.
While not everyone agrees with every aspect, proposals under consideration in Congress offer a ray of hope, bringing new thinking and approaches. Sadly, the partisan headaches we are dealing with today don’t make the task any easier.
Best of all, OneRail has two skilled leaders in Devon Barnhart and Liz Hill, both of whom can play a major role in achieving better outcomes for all of rail.
DI: You have pushed creativity and innovation your entire career, and you’ve demolished old barriers. What can women or indeed any aspiring transportation professional learn from your path-breaking experiences?
AC: I hope there is something! The world has changed since I had most of those jobs. Today, it’s not such a shock to have a woman lead a DOT. There are plenty of women leading transit agencies. Katie Farmer at BNSF leads a Class I railroad. So many women have come after me.
My view is that assuming a leadership role in any organization where you are seen as “different,” you have to have your own goals, but you also need to understand where an organization is. Staying focused and looking for opportunities to advance your priorities for whatever job you’re in is vital.
DI: What more can you share about making a difference?
AC: As I said, listening—really learning how to listen and hear what people are saying—is very important. I would also say look for opportunities. I’ve bounced around a lot. I can’t imagine staying in one place for 30 years, not that I really had the choice of doing that, but you learn by seeing problems from different perspectives. Whether you’re on Capitol Hill, or in an Administration, or at a state level, or in the private sector, wherever, you get a different perspective of the issues and the answers.
You have to step out of your comfort zone if you want to see change. I’ve never had a problem doing that. Don’t be afraid to try new things. You might fail once in a while, but you also will have a bunch of successes, and that’s what moves things forward.
Don Itzkoff is Chief Policy Officer for Patriot Rail.