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She rode 3 buses to school in the Bronx. Now she’s a top U.S. transit official.

Veronica Vanterpool, outside the Department of Transportation headquarters, was appointed deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration in May. (Michael Laris /The Washington Post)
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When her lease is up in October, Veronica Vanterpool is planning to get rid of her Nissan Altima.

Vanterpool, who grew up in the Bronx and took three buses to get to high school, was appointed deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration in May.

After moving from Wilmington, Del., to Washington last year, Vanterpool decided she no longer needed her car. “I drive it maybe three times a month,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Vanterpool was chief innovation officer at the Delaware Transit Corporation and spent a decade as an activist at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, pushing for improvements to transit in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Now she’s working inside the Transportation Department’s D.C. headquarters, hoping to help communities stranded by spotty or nonexistent transit service and to improve safety by promoting alternatives to driving — goals that are supported by a surge in transit spending in the infrastructure law President Biden signed last year.

The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: You spent so long as an advocate outside government. Now you’re in the middle of it. Do you ever find yourself having to hold your tongue?

A: I am very much still an advocate at heart. I just have to approach it a little differently. When I was on the outside, we had to push, sometimes very assertively and aggressively. The tactics and strategies that we used sometimes could be bombastic — though always, from our perspective, it was rooted in data and rooted in fact. When you’re within government, you recognize that you are working with people who are also very mission-driven and share a lot of the same goals. So being bombastic is not a priority anymore. You’re using different tactics. Now I have a little bit more influence within a team of influencers who have fingerprints on what is being produced, what is being discussed and the outcomes of those discussions — and doing it in a way that is not taking years of pushing. That shift has been very welcome. But I’m very much still that advocate that is questioning and asking and challenging. Now I’m working within a team to find a lot of those solutions. Before, I was demanding solutions. There are less demands now when you’re working within.

Q: What is the connection between transit and reducing road deaths?

A: The absolute connection is the more people are using our transit system, the less reliant they are on a vehicle. That means, in many cases, that there are fewer vehicles on the road, and fewer vehicles leads to fewer fatalities and injuries among pedestrians and bicyclists. The data supports that. In fact, those metropolitan areas that have the largest public transportation systems have the fewest pedestrian fatalities and injuries, per capita. When you’re reducing the number of vehicles on the road, it makes for a more walkable and livable environment. It’s not that we’re against the car. We’re providing options, and options that are safer.

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Q: What if making those kinds of transit investments proves too slow and expensive?

A: It doesn’t always have to be costly and always take a lot of time. While many big cities are investing in capital-intensive projects to support legacy rail systems, as they should, there are investments that can be made on a smaller scale. Some communities can put systems up within months. We saw that during the pandemic. The FTA has been investing in on-demand services for quite some time, which puts smaller vehicles on the road to respond to passengers’ needs at the moment.

Q: You did that in Delaware, right?

A: I applied for and won one of the FTA’s Accelerating Innovative Mobility grants. The project was in a rural area that was already served by the Delaware Transit Corporation, where I worked. The challenge was the service wasn’t frequent enough, which is true in many rural communities. The ridership is not there, but the ridership that exists needs service. Delaware used its own vehicles, and we contracted with a third party to create and provide software for an on-demand micro-transit pilot called DART Connect, which includes an app on the phone. But because this was an equity-focused project, we didn’t want this just to be for people with a smartphone. We wanted there to be a 1-800 number for people to call and connect with a live person who could book the ride for them. These are individuals who are very limited in employment options, because they can’t get there. They’re very limited in the health services they can seek and receive. And, like in other rural communities, they are dealing with a lot of social and health issues.

The outcome was that passengers and customers who were waiting upward of 60 to 75 minutes for a bus — because that was the schedule — were getting a ride in an average of 9 to 11 minutes. We connected two communities, Georgetown and Millsboro, that were 10 miles apart, largely agricultural, very low-income. More than 40 percent of the population is Spanish-speaking. These were individuals who just didn’t have access to a vehicle, and now they were able to take many transit trips. The five top destinations we served were the poultry plant, Walmart, a rehabilitation center, parole and the jail. This is a population that is generally not well-served in any community across the United States.

This is an issue of equity and access. That’s what transit is. Ridership in Delaware is soaring. It is $2 a ride, the same as the local bus system. And we are connecting people in ways they hadn’t been.

Q: What else can be done to make life on buses better, more broadly?

A: Transit is the great equalizer. Nuria Fernandez, our administrator, says that all the time. The data shows that more people of lower means are riding buses. And they often have the most challenging commutes, either because they’re slow or they’re lengthy or the buses are infrequent.

Buses often run in mixed traffic, slowing them down. But many transit agencies don’t own the roads or the infrastructure that the buses operate on. You look around the globe and you’ll see very clear examples, decades-old, of investment in bus infrastructure, for example, with dedicated bus ways. We often are not seeing that level of partnership and investment in our bus systems.

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Q: What have you seen that’s good, and bad, about the Washington region’s transportation network?

A: It’s very nice for me to be in a city that is walkable, that is bikeable. I have appreciated the investments that the District of Columbia has made. It is a Vision Zero city, seeking no traffic deaths. There’s significant commitment to bike and pedestrian infrastructure. I have appreciated the investments that WMATA is making in service. I mean, look, the renovations and the service reductions, are they inconvenient for users? Of course they are. But, you know, they’re for a reason. What I appreciate is the constant investment. I appreciate being in a city where I can give up my car. I love seeing buses all the time around here. My goal is to just hop on the bus and ride around the city. I already have my next bus routes laid out, because I need to be connected to the community.

Around the country, many transit systems are in survival mode still, looking to increase ridership and deal with all sorts of concerns, including rising covid cases, operator shortages and supply chain issues.

But we need to get back onto our systems again. And that’s what I love about this city — I can do that.

Q: Why did you want to do this kind of work?

A: My background is in environmental policy and science. I always noticed inequities in my community. I’m Puerto Rican, born and raised in the Bronx. We didn’t have a lot of parkland, and the parks that we have are all concrete. There weren’t a lot of trees. When I started, I didn’t know much about transportation, other than being a transit user. Being on the train and being on the buses, that was my mobility, that was my freedom.

What keeps me here in this work is the equity of it. It’s incredibly important for people to have access. What I love about this work is connecting people to each other, connecting people to what matters.

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