U.S. FTA Head Rogoff Paints Grim Picture of Nation's Transit Priorities

» In arguing that cities need to focus on keeping their existing bus systems running rather than expanding rail services, the Federal Transit Administrator is pointing in the wrong direction.

Peter Rogoff, head of the Federal Transit Administration, made a series of sweeping assertions about the priorities of public transportation operators yesterday in a speech in front of the nation’s transit officials in Boston.

Calling for “honesty,” saying “no,” and “telling truth to power,” Rogoff suggested that the financial difficulties facing mass transit networks today are at least partially the result of an unnecessary focus on rail expansion rather than bus improvements. He asked his colleagues to commit to improving the political viability of state-of-good-repair maintenance and to refocus their goals towards continuing today’s basic operations, rather than moving into new markets and potentially leaving existing services by the wayside.

It’s disappointing and arguably damaging to the cause of improved public transit in the United States to hear such rhetoric from the chief of the FTA.

There’s nothing wrong with advocating improved maintenance; Mr. Rogoff is right in saying that unless we improve the capital conditions of transit systems, “We won’t get the riders we need… the sustainability of our transit systems will be in jeopardy… and the economic vitality of our cities will be undermined.” And it may be reasonable to suggest that U.S. cities are too attached to rail system expansion over all else. But Mr. Rogoff’s seeming willingness to ignore the existing delegation of funding roles in today’s federal system indicates a naïveté about the degree of change even possible for local transit agencies.

In his speech, the transit head played off an odd opposition he notices in his day-to-day meetings with general managers of public transportation agencies: While they all complain about the fact that the recession is pulling down their revenues, they then turn around an ask him to approve more funding for expensive new rail lines. “At times like these, it’s more important than ever to have the courage to ask a hard question: if you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?” Mr. Rogoff suggested.

Case in point is Sacramento, Mr. Rogoff argued, which asked the FTA for New Starts funds to build a new light rail line but which had its application denied earlier this year because of insufficient operations support for existing lines. Mr. Rogoff seemed to be suggesting that future New Starts grants will be dependent on higher local operations revenues. He seemed to be offended by the mere idea that any transit agency would want to expand given current fiscal circumstances.

Yet the unfortunate reality for Mr. Rogoff is that the federal government’s steadfast unwillingness to help cover operations spending is the primary reason agencies haven’t been able to maintain service levels during the economic downturn. Meanwhile, while he may be right that transit organizations aren’t doing enough to keep their systems in good shape, he neglects to mention that that problem is a reflection of the federal government’s inability to increase spending levels on maintenance in line with needs. Washington long ago agreed to pay for the majority of capital needs for most transit systems. Those funds are legally separate from any money used for expansions — transit systems are supposed to keep their operations and capital budgets separate. And funds mandated by federal or local governments for maintenance go towards that.

The fact that there aren’t enough efforts to advance a state of good repair is a consequence of inadequate dollars but not the inappropriate utilization of those dollars by agencies.

Then came Mr. Rogoff’s bizarre assertion that the majority of state of good repair expenses that are in rail and that therefore the “honest” thing to do would be to invest more in bus networks instead. “The deferred maintenance backlog for the entire transit universe is roughly $78 billion,” said the FTA Administrator. “But you should know that fully 75 percent of that figure is to replace rail assets.”

I have repeatedly argued for bus rapid transit instead of rail in some of the nation’s less dense cities, so I manifestly have no problem with Rogoff’s commentary from that perspective — there often simply isn’t the demand for the capacity rail offers. His argument that “you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail” certainly applies to some cities.

But the overwhelming need to repair train systems as compared to bus networks is an entirely different issue that has nothing to do with the advantages of buses the FTA administrator is implying. Rather, there are two very obvious reasons it costs the FTA more money to maintain urban rail: one, many of this country’s subway systems are decades old; and two, the FTA doesn’t have a responsibility to maintain the roads buses travel on — other state and federal agencies do.

Thus globally, rail just means more expenses for the FTA, not government in general, which still must pay for road maintenance. And there far more state of good repair needs, worth up to one hundred billions dollars a year, for roadways. To blame transit agencies for focusing on rail because those systems put more of the funding onus on the FTA is absurd.

Moreover, until recently the FTA has made it quite difficult to make investments in limited-scale bus improvements of the sort Mr. Rogoff evidently now wants to emphasize. The Small Starts grant program (which also pays for streetcars) is only three years old; the similar TIGER and inner-city circulator programs are even newer. Just as relevant, transit systems in most of the country are so inadequate that even in the face of grave service reductions, line extensions must be built. Putting aside the fact that it would be impossible under federal rules, does anyone seriously think that New York should stop building the Second Avenue Subway or the LIRR East Side Access project and use the funds to pay for the daily functioning of the buses or subways? Aren’t the long-term benefits of continuing investment in these capital expenditures worth the seeming hypocrisy of simultaneously cutting operations?

Whether action from Washington is realistic or not, the real responsibility here comes from Congress to allocate more funds for bus upgrades and state-of-good repair maintenance; transit agencies should not be needlessly criticized for their limited resources. Admittedly, Mr. Rogoff does point that out, saying “We are at 40-50 percent in funding levels right now. We need a combined effort at the state, local, and Federal level to increase funding. And we need a nationwide partnership to solve these issues.”

Yet the saddest part about Mr. Rogoff’s statements is that he ignores a basic political reality: Without those big new rail programs he criticizes as too expensive, there would be little support for more funding for operations and maintenance funding at the local level; those projects are what unify advocacy for broader transportation expenditures. The FTA chair’s call for interest in routine maintenance — “We need to think about how we generate the same attention and excitement when we repair the retaining wall, replace rail ties, or refurbish a bridge” — comes across as unrealistic and naive. Only with big new projects, when people get unambiguous evidence of new and better service, can you generate the necessary willpower to fund operations and maintenance appropriately.

What’s most surprising about this speech is that it comes from a member of an Administration that has made a point to emphasize different kinds of thinking when it comes to transit investments. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has been a major proponent of angling transit programs towards livability, in strong opposition to the Bush Administration’s obsession with diminishing spending on public transportation. This DOT has made positive statements about major new rail capital projects like Los Angeles’ 30/10 program.

In which direction is Mr. Rogoff’s FTA heading? Is he preparing us for a complete drop-off in federal funds resulting from Congress’ inability to pass a new transportation authorization bill? Is this a desperate call for more local financing? Only time will tell.

Image above: San Jose VTA Light Rail stop, from Flickr user richardmasoner (cc)

60 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Peter Brassard

    No one will disagree that transit system maintenance should be improved and not ignored. Rogoff misses the point entirely. Yes rail projects are more expensive than busses or rapid bus. The cheaper alternative of rapid bus may increase ridership to some extent, but in numerous examples around the country rail transit attracts greater ridership than busses, even if only in the form of the simplest of streetcars. In addition, rail improvements attract real estate development dollars, buses do not, which has been proven repeatedly. If increasing ridership is a goal, rail transit needs to be part of the transit mix even in the smallest cities or metropolitan areas.

    • Eric G.

      Real estate dollars don’t follow steel wheels over rubber tires. That’s a myth. You can go to Curitiba, Brasil and clearly see where the BRT lines are by the residential towers that line them. What drives development is A) Commitment – which can be either rail or exclusive lanes or significant station investment, and should include the commitment to increased height/density allowances and reduced parking requirements. B) Frequency – because that puts more people at the doorstep. and C) Connection Points – where multiple routes provide a wider range of accessible areas along the rest of the network. If rail alone was attracting development and bus could not, then the rust belt cities with heavy rail would be booming and sun belt bus-heavy cities would be withering, but it ain’t so. Please don’t take that as me being against rail, far from it, I’m very much for it in the right context, but use factual arguments to support it.

      • The question regarding the Curitiba model … is which US city is willing to hand over a third of its streets to use for the BRT system?

        Development does not follow the bus systems Rogoff is talking about here in the way that development follows the rail systems Rogoff is talking about here.

        • EngineerScotty

          Any comparison between US cities and Curitiba need to be taken with a grain of salt, for numerous reasons:

          * Different amount of power available to the government
          * Differing amounts of wealth of the citizenry.
          * Differing costs of labor–making hiring tons of bus drivers a more reasonable proposition than it would be in the US.

          Not that BRT isn’t a bad idea in some scenariors.

      • Eric G.

        Good points all. I’m not suggesting a direct comparison of Curitiba to US cities, only making the point that development will follow a strong, durable commitment to good transit service, regardless of the technology used to provide that service. In many instances rail is most appropriate to demonstrate commitment and ensure quality service, but I dislike the assertion, often made, that it is the ONLY way.

        • Ben Ross

          The Curitiba land use rules were imposed by a military dictatorship. There are some arguments in favor of bus rapid transit for which you can use Curitiba as an example, but land use decision-making is not one of them.

  • Putting aside the fact that it would be impossible under federal rules, does anyone seriously think that New York should stop building the Second Avenue Subway or the LIRR East Side Access project and use the funds to pay for the daily functioning of the buses or subways?

    The Straphangers’ campaign has called for diverting part of the capital budget to operations. I don’t think they’ve specifically mentioned SAS and ESA – they talk more about station facelift projects.

    • Sandy Smith

      The Second Avenue Subway remains unfinished today because capital funds meant to build it in the past were diverted to operations — on several occasions.

      This is one of the few rail projects that I agree should proceed no matter what.

  • Part of my problem with this commentary is that it doesn’t put this in the broader context of transportation in general. If transit agencies are going to tighten their belts, why don’t DOTs have to do the same thing? While it’s easy to tell transit agencies to buck up, it’s another thing to say they should absorb all the pain.

  • Tyler Bump

    Next Stop: A National Summit on the Future of Transit Now let’s remember that the majority of transit trips in this country are still done by bus. When it comes to delivering actual transit service, Americans take 21 percent more transit trips every year than rail trips

    This may very well be the case, but to not take into account the overall size of bus versus rail transit systems and the relationship to modal choice in this country is misleading. If there are 21 percent more bus trips taken than rail trips, what does that mean when the service mileage for bus far exceeds that of transit?

    The other subject that is left out is the placemaking and livability outcomes of rail and station areas. Secretary LaHood has done a great job of bringing the concept of livability as an outcome of transit to the general public thus far and many of these statements are no doubt a step backwards from the DOT’s livability goals. While rail investment may be costly, the social and fiscal benefits of rail investment far outweigh initial construction costs. Take for example the economy of scale benefits related to infrastructure investment and operations with intensified uses at transit stations.

  • I have repeatedly argued for bus rapid transit instead of rail in some of the nation’s less dense cities, so I manifestly have no problem with Rogoff’s commentary from that perspective…

    I am more concerned about population size than population density. Density is an issue for any kind of transit–the denser, the more transit-friendly. At least here in Dane County, Wisconsin, a major issue is population size. We are talking about an urban area of around 350,000 people, too small for trains by the reckoning of some people.

    If having buses compete successfully with the auto for time is a major consideration, then it makes sense to initially expand the bus system by adding rapid bus lines. As the major limitation of buses is capacity, not TOD as some aver, then it makes sense to replace saturated bus lines with the larger-capacity rail. When bus lines get used so much, then there is also the political willingness to underwrite the cost of a train. But to initially put in a costly train, in an area in which even buses are often under-utilized, is both ridiculous and counter-productive. So I agree with Rogoff in that sense.

    What is not mentioned, but is a strong undercurrent of all the rail mania, is a class issue. Denial by supposed liberals? Some snobs here in the Midwest won’t ride buses — period.

    • simple

      > the major limitation of buses is capacity, not TOD

      I’d like to identify case studies in successful bus-based TOD in the US in the last 30 years. Anyone have suggestions/details?

    • We are talking about an urban area of around 350,000 people, too small for trains by the reckoning of some people.

      Get a grant to fly those people over to Switzerland. Tell the Swiss that urban areas of 350,000 can’t have successful trains and they’ll laugh in your face.

      Madison actually has a better shot at having successful rail than comparable US cities, for two reasons: first, it’s a college town, and students are a relatively transit-friendly constituency; and second, there’s a good existing rail ROW away from freight mainlines that passes near most of the important destinations.

  • It’s wonderful to hear President Obama’s FTA boss talking about transit in terms of priorities and money.

    I wish the FTA of the Bush Administration had analyzed the effect of “paint brush” rapid bus and bus lane economics a little more closely before awarding $1.3 billion in New Starts funds to begin Seattle’s ruinous transition from one of the nation’s best all-bus system to a train station feeder network.

    Seattle region’s transit melt down is now in the official forecasts as well as the present reality. A new MPO forecast by psrc.org for regional rail-involved trips in 2040 came in at 47% lower than the 2008 mass transit local tax campaign forecast for rail boardings in 2030.

    Despite 80 miles of light rail and another 80 of commuter rail planned to be up and running in 2040, the modeled 2040 network shows bus trips with no rail involvement outnumbering rail trips — including those fed by feeder buses — by 4 to 1, IF (big if) the money can be found to operate the buses. It’s not easy to see how at the moment. Bus service hours need to be doubled, according to the regional planners.

    The solo-driving market forecast for the Seattle region is modeled to move from 43.4% to 42.8% over the next 30 years, despite putting half of government transportation resources into transit over this period.

    All of the Seattle area local bus agencies are struggling for financial sustainability in the present day and for years to come, while rail construction (so far) is fully-funded with a dedicated sales tax and FTA New Starts construction cash.

    Oh yes, we of the region voted for this path, and $1.3 billion in FTA construction funds was a big incentive.

    Before writing checks, FTA did not verify that the buses of the local transit agencies would be financially sustainable, and already they are proving not to be. The dollar level of the sales-tax funded interest payments on rail construction bonds would have kept the bus system whole, but that train has left the station.

    What’s interesting now is the Sound Transit is already talking about another $600 billion in rail construction cash from FTA to keep going with its tunnel building and track laying.

    Under Mr. Rogoff’s leadership, maybe this time FTA will look at the whole big picture of regional transit viability, including the need for a bus network running where trains will never go.

    • simple

      > we of the region voted for this path

      Was there a campaign to use the sales tax for (bus) operating rather than (rail) capital costs?

      • Sales tax for transit in Seattle region is in separate silos for the rail transit agency (Sound Transit) and for each of the local bus transit agencies (four of them) serving parts of the same territory. Within each silo, sales tax can go for both capital and operating expenditures.

        The attempt to rationalize this financing tangle a few years ago by a Governor appointed regional task force making recommendations was viewed by Sound Transit as an effort to take them down, which was true in the hearts and minds of some.

        Sound Transit keeps peace by providing lush contracts to three of the four bus agencies to operate Sound Transit’s purchased regional buses. Thus in effect, some of Sound Transit’s 9/10th of one cent sales tax goes to buses, while the rest goes to rail construction and operation. The bus agencies collect their own sales tax on top of ST’s, in amounts that vary by county.

        King County (Seattle) Metro’s own sales tax of 9/10 cent taps out their authority granted by State of Washington, and the agency will be going to the State legislature for more authority by the end of the year. Success is not certain, since the sales tax overall in Seattle is already at 9.5% generally, 10% for restaurant meals.

  • simple

    If this characterization of Rogoff’s mindset is correct, this is indeed depressing for all the reasons Yonah says. Ambition for the future provides a powerful incentive to solve the problems of the present. Cut off that ambition and you’ve severely handicapped yourself. More to the point, not planning for growth is the same as planning for decline.

    • If anyone has a more positive assessment of his statement, please contradict me. I’d love to feel better about this situation.

      Read his speech yourself; linked above, but also here:

      http://www.fta.dot.gov/news/speeches/news_events_11682.html

      • Sandy Smith

        One reason I agree with Rogoff’s remarks about making maintenance sexy, however, is the recent history of what happens when we don’t.

        Consider that New York didn’t find the political will to bring its vast subway network back to a state of good repair until it was on the verge of total breakdown in the early 1990s. Chicago’s CTA rapid transit network DID collapse for all intents and purposes before area electeds decided to get serious about rebuilding it.

        SEPTA’s elevated lines are now in great shape (more or less), but they too were not overhauled or rebuilt until they had seriously deteriorated.

        The big maintenance bill that’s coming due now is for the two big systems that launched the Second Subway Era in the US — San Francisco/Oakland BART and the Washington Metro. The figures I hear will be needed to replace systems nearing the end of their useful lives is something on the order of $4 billion for each system, maybe more, and the regional pols in both places STILL haven’t yet figured out where that money’s coming from. Metro escalator riders can probably tell you about the frustrations of dealing with increasingly unreliable escalators, and that’s just the beginning. A program of regular systematic maintenance can avert these sorts of cliffhangers AND make selling expansion easier. Why not try?

  • A good articulation of the possibility of Transit Oriented Development with rapid buses is something I read a few years ago — http://www.masstransitmag.com/web/online/Online-Exclusives/Attracting-TOD/5$5320

    I’ll be interested in your assessment.

    • simple

      Thanks. Interesting article.

      I think the Cleveland example comes closest to what I’m trying to find — development that came (or was more intensive in nature) mostly because the BRT made it a more attractive place to develop. However, if I recall correctly, most of the $800M in development cited by the Cleveland officials was expansions to Cleveland Clinic, a major institution that was already there. Most of the other $1B+ in “planned” development along this corridor remains to be seen.

      In the case of Downtown Markham (suburban Toronto), that’s a relatively successful greenfield new urbanist suburb next to an expressway and commuter train station. BRT and the development are certainly complimentary, but it’s hard to say that the development was induced or intensified solely because of BRT. Its densities are similar to other suburban Toronto developments, but it has paid more attention to pedestrian access and mixed use than most (as part of the original development concept – not necessarily because of BRT).

      El Monte Transit Village in LA is still a dream, so can’t be called a success yet.

      The Boston redevelopment is essentially an expansion of one of the most vibrant rail-oriented central business districts in the US, so again it’s hard to attribute the redevelopment’s success or scale to BRT alone (or even in large part).

      It would also be interesting to compare transit mode share at these developments with comparable rail-oriented TODs. That would be useful for proving your original assertion that “the major limitation of buses [BRT] is capacity, not TOD.”

      Hopefully others will have some thoughts too. Thanks again.

      • Eric G.

        You may want to contact Lane Transit in Eugene, Oregon and see if they have any knowledge of development specifically sited near EmX because of that system being in place.

        • EngineerScotty

          EmX passes through mostly developed areas–there are a few green and brownfields along the route that might merit development, but the Franklin Boulevard corridor (which runs between downtown Eugene and downtown Springfield, between the Willamette River and the University of Oregon) is already pretty well developed.

          The under construction extension to Gateway, which runs on a new boulevard in the Springfield area, might see some new development. How much of that would be attributed to the EmX line is an interesting question.

      • Wad

        El Monte Transit Village in LA is still a dream, so can’t be called a success yet.

        It can’t even be called a dream right now.

        The developer was indicted, and now the city is looking for new developer just to get it to the dream stage. The hard part is then developing a large parcel of land in a very low income neighborhood of a very low income city. The other challenge is that the city retailers want it oriented to the drivers on the adjacent 10 Freeway (like the Westfield and Eastland shopping centers to the east in West Covina).

      • Thad

        I think it more a matter of the investment made than just the mode.The expansions of Cleveland Clinic, University Hosptial, Cleveland State, Case Western Reserve University and other institutions along Euclid were already making it a hotspot for development, the HealthLine was just a well planned and well implemented project on the right corridor in the right part of town. With all of the cities major employers expanding and new industries and job opportunities arising drawing in more resdents, a developer would be dumb not to have atleast one project going on there.

        The reason why rail is seen as such a big development draw is that any rail project is an expensive long-term investment. You have to lay track, buy the vehicles, and build larger more secure stations (depending on the mode). Add on extra costs for grade separation, like acquiring right of way, digging a tunnel, or building elevated viaducts. The line would have to be an abyssmal failure and a politician would have to have a lot of political capital to tear it down so it’s there for the long haul, not a couple of years. Also because those projects are so expensive, they are usually planned to go to important places like the CBD. This doesn’t happen all the time, but in general they connect to the major employment center and provide a quick connection there, and by having a connection, a neighborhood along the line can then be made marketable and can be reinvested in. This is why a huge transit investment in conjuction with an economic investment along a major corridor in Detroit i.e. Woodward would really spur development because it translates to “there’s something going on here that you might be interested in because we’re putting money into it.”

      • City of Seattle is densifying neighborhoods all over the North end in places where the only transit is buses, both now and for the next 20 years.

        There are hopes and plans for densification along the light rail line in SE Seattle. We shall see what happens.

  • Steve Lax

    A rail route that generates little ridership becomes a major operating drain on the transit system; yet politically and perhaps because of DBOM construction/operation and FTA funding rules, it is very difficult to eliminate new rail service that is performing poorly. In this sense, I believe Rogoff is correct in suggesting that there be a reexamination of many of the proposed rail projects. (Almost any service expansion is not going to cover its operating cost; but a poorly performing new rail operation can be particularly harmful to the budget.)

    Concerning rail and TOD, if developers benefit from rail or bus rapid transit, they should be paying a special TOD tax to support the transit.

    • EngineerScotty

      Exactly, WES in Portland is a disaster, and a tremendous drain on TriMet’s finances. But TriMet has to operate it for a long time, or risk forfeiture of the Federal funds used to help bring the system into operation. Money TriMet does not have.

  • I also would like to give my opinion. The federal government should subject funding for new roads to the same evaluation criteria as transit projects, and include how operating expenses will be met.

    • Since roads carry freight, emergency vehicles, construction materials, mail, and trash trucks, evaluating roads requires some additional criteria beyond those used to evaluate passenger-carrying transit. Also roads are important for movement during those hours of the day and week when transit is infrequent or not in service at all.

      Where transit does best generally is carrying frequent commuters to work and school during traditional peak periods. This traffic is a big part of rush hour, but a small part of total transport needs for moving people for all purposes all the time, and thus we see a lot of cars on roads over the 24 hour day.

      On operating expenses for roads … isn’t that where fuel taxes go? Plus of course the complete cost of gasoline and cars is an operating expense borne by the people who own and drive them, with important societal costs not to be ignored.

      Seattle area is planning for road use fees on all expressways in the years ahead, some of which should pay the cost of cleaning up Puget Sound through control of urban storm water runoff that is full of ground up tires, oil drippings, and brake pad particles.

  • JA

    I agree 100% with the FTA head. You cannot have an underdeveloped bus system and declare on that basis that you need light rail or even BRT. A transit system’s development should build on its strengths. If you have a weak base, then the rail system will underperform. This idea that federal funds should be used to build a light rail system that will burn lots of cash because it is an “economic development” tool is loony.

    This is part of the reason why the maximum contribution for rail New Starts is now 60%. I would rather it go back to 80% and reject more of the weaker rail and BRT proposals. Show that you can build a solid base network and we will then give you more to build more. That seems fair to me.

  • Dan

    I was there for the first part of the summit yesterday. I heard Rogoff speak and I agreed with most of what he said, although the focus on good state of repair and almost not even mentioning any expansion was not the most inspiring. On top of his speech, that of Rep. Olver, who could hardly get any words out (completely uninspiring) and the speeches from all of the heads (or former heads) of transit agencies on the panel right after made the first part of the summit very depressing.

    They were all correct to say that good state of repair is very important, and they were all very good at expressing the serious problems that they are facing, but none of them were inspiring. None of them talked about expansion and what public transit should be, although Dr. Scott, the head of MARTA was the only one who had any life in her. You could tell she was really passionate about transit and all of the associated benefits, everyone else could seem to care less.

    The low point for me was when Rich Davey, the head of the MBTA said that he took the T over to the summit and didn’t experience any problems. I found this pretty amusing considering that I was waiting on the platform with him, while he looked around and tried to figure out why the train at the station in front of him was sitting there for about 3-4 minutes without moving and the conductor not making any announcements. Then, when the next train finally came about 7 minutes later, it crept down the tunnel and into the station at 5mph. Apparently to Mr. Davey, this was just fine.

    They were right to explain all the problems that they are facing, but none of them expressed any sort of vision for the future, except for Dr. Scott. A pretty sad morning for the so-called “future of transit”.

    • It sounds like Rogoff’s vision of the future is, “get another funding source for rail projects, and the FTA will be happy to look after bus projects”.

      And all up … that would be a fine solution, and could, indeed, address the “lower cost to buy, higher cost to own” problem of diesel versus electric commuter rail lines, as well as the insanity of a system in which a local community is supposed to choose between investing in intrinsically complementary transit technologies.

      Have an account based system on a new dedicated stream of funds for building and running oil-independent transport, 100% federal capital grant, 50% operating grant, and leave the dedicated gas tax funds for complementary services.

  • Carl Thiessen

    It would appear by most of the comments posted the true point is missed.

    We have reached the tipping point in this country and indeed the world. If not today for sure tomorrow we will all be forced to face the reality of our situation. No one has unlimited money. We can continue to cry for more or do the best we can with what we have and plan for when the environment improves. The best we can is to prioritize our need and separate that from our wants. The best we can is to evaluate the condition of our current infrastructure and properly maintain what we have before we ask for more.

    Are our vehicles dirty, breakdown often, late, have broken windows and riddled with graffiti? If so why should anyone local or federal give us more money when it appears we didn’t take care of what we have already?

    Too many systems have a capital replacement program that masquerades as a maintenance program.

    Too many light rail projects are seen as and pursued as jobs programs by local politicians. Effectively a short term shot in the arm for the local economy with no real long term plan for sustainability. Being in charge of building a huge rail project is sexy and exciting, brings jobs to the region as such you are seen as a visionary, a leader in the community, a hero.

    The day in and day out grind involved in maintaining as system properly, effectively and efficiently is boring and is seen as a ‘waste’ of money by many high powered managers. Cleanliness, reliability and driving out waste and inefficiencies are given little focused thought and certainly no hero’s welcome.

    I for one as a maintenance manager was the victim of a visionary that demanded that I reduce my mechanic work force directly proportionate to the number of new vehicles received. After all, new vehicles don’t need maintenance. In addition this visionary argued against any maintenance dollars budgeted for any equipment that was over ten years old; he just couldn’t ‘see’ spending money on older vehicles. This visionary had the vision of an all new fleet. Great for him with a short term commitment to this region, he would be long gone before the true cost of these decisions would kick in. That was just the beginning of what he couldn’t see.

    We should take care of what we have before we ask for more. Are we truly as efficient and effective as we can be? Are we putting out a reliable, clean, safe product to the best of our ability, something that our customers are proud of and see as ‘theirs’ not just something that they must ride because of their social or economic situation?

    The true heroes of transit have the wisdom and maturity to see the difference and manage to the best return on investment because that is in the best interest of their region as well as the best interest of all transit systems. The true heroes don’t waste the resources they have because that waste means fewer resources for others.

    Mr. Rogoff speaks truth to power, I wish him a long career.

    • Of course we have unlimited money – at least in the US. What kind of fantasy world does one have to live in to imagine that a nation with a sovereign currency has a finance constraint?

      What we have that is limited is resources, and many of our resources that we have, both labor and equipment, are presently unemployed and underemployed.

      Our binding constraint is energy – and so if we issue money to mobilize unemployed resources that economizes on energy use, then we at present have the capacity for hundreds of billions of dollars in spending annually.

      On the other hand, we cannot afford the money we have presently dedicated to further building up the road network and additional government subsidies for more sprawl development … not because of any finance constraint, but because we cannot afford to keep increasing our energy consumption per person.

      • EngineerScotty

        There are, however, lots of Rich and Powerful People who would be most unhappy were we to take advantage of our sovereign currency, and engage in inflationary practices which might dilute their share of it.

        It’s like the silverites, all over again. :)

        • This is not even talking about engaging in inflationary practices … putting existing domestic unemployed resources to work in a way that improves our current accounts is not inflationary.

          Its about the economic conditions before hitting the inflationary wall, because before hitting the inflationary level of total demand for national output, we hit a far scarier zone … the zone where conditions in some labor markets give some working people some limited amount of bargaining power.

    • JA

      BINGO!

      Some of these “visionaries” also believe that the way to get higher income riders is to put them on light rail and commuter rail vehicles. The bus system is acknowledged as not “good enough” for middle class riders. There are cheaper ways to do that than rail or even BRT. Frequent, reliable bus service can be done with standard transit buses and soft seats.

      • Actually, middle class people can excuse catching a bus if its “just to get to the train station”.

        The idea that there is a single one-size-fits-all solution is silly … the absurd idea that the automobile was a one-size-fits-all solution to our transport problems is how we ended up with a financial and physically unsustainable road network.

        Clearly given the massive subsidies to road (and to a lesser extent air) transport, resulting from the absurd system that seems to select modes of transport primarily based on their ability to dump costs onto third parties … its by no means surprising that we have a large number of locales where the best approach in terms of full economic costs and benefits involve modes of transportation that have been discriminated against over nearly a century. Whenever you persistently bias decisions in favor of one choice over a long period of time, its normal to use up all the problems that it is actually the first best solution for, and then spill over into the problems where it is the second best, third best, or even worst available solution.

  • Dan

    Actually Carl, I feel that you miss the true point. I’ll admit that moving the emphasis from maintenance to new projects is wrong, maintenance levels should be maintained at a good state of repair and systems should be expanded when needed. If you continue to just maintain what is currently in place and don’t expand until things are put right again, nothing will happen. Transit systems will be stuck in neutral, because nothing will ever be completely fixed.

    If no expansion should be done, until everything is in great working order for transit agencies, then we should do the exact same with all road and highway construction. No highway, interstate or road construction or expansion should take place until everything is in a good state of repair.

    We are reaching the tipping point in this country, but I wouldn’t say the world. I lived and used public transit in many different countries and not only do they continue to properly maintain their systems, they continue to expand as well. North America is a different case when comparing the funding and taxation schemes and the societal approach of how and why public transportation should be funded. Public transportation has taken a back seat and been left to die in the U.S., while the spending and desire for new roads and more sprawl is a never ending sink hole into which money continues to flow unabated. We need to change the way people think about public transit in this country and although comments from Mr. Rogoff are realistic as to our current state, they are by now way an expression of the way forward.

  • I don’t like the dichotomous nature of this discussion, either from the FTA head or from these comments. The question of maintenance vs. investment is only a question relevant in the context of skeletal transit funding. If transit spending even somewhat approached our spending on roads, there would be ample room for maintenance, BRT in mid-size cities, and rail on high capacity corridors. Until we have an all-in approach we’ll just bicker ourselves into different technology camps and make “either/or” out of mobility issues that should be “yes/and”.

    • Even within a regime of reasonable funding, US rail would underperform with the current quality of planning. Few US LRT projects have had capital costs less than $10,000 per weekday boarding. The average is about $20,000. It’s still a bargain compared to the Interstate boondoggle, but when European cities routinely build LRT for $5,000 per rider, those costs indicate either corruption or incompetence.

      • Anon256

        Surely much of this cost-per-rider gap can be attributed to auto travel being so much cheaper in the US than in Europe? When your competition is heavily subsidised it’s a lot harder to get customers. I would also expect the built environment in US cities to be less suited to walkability/transit than European ones on average (as far as everything being behind a parking lot, streets lacking sidewalks, etc) which would further depress ridership in ways not under the transit agency’s control. Unfortunately to fix these problems politically we need to first demonstrate that transit is a viable alternative, which requires overpriced projects for the time being.

        (This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of incompetently-planned projects in the US, both existing and proposed.)

        • If you want to control for walkability, density, and gas prices, then compare the US to Canada, where gas is marginally more expensive than in the US. Canadian rail projects usually cost more than European ones, but much less than American ones. They cluster around $10,000/rider, including Skytrain’s elevated lines. The only US project to come under $10,000/rider is Houston’s METRORail; most cost about $20,000/rider.

          The difference between the US and Canada not walkability – it’s good metro area planning. For example, Calgary made sure to zone areas near LRT stations for high density, and restricted parking availability downtown. It also reserved grade-separated ROW in rail corridors and arterial medians to cut the per-km construction cost. If it were walkability, Northeastern US projects would cost very little. They certainly get respectable ridership. But their per-km cost is very high due to poor planning and contractor corruption; their per-rider cost is among the highest nationwide, for example $50,000/rider for SAS and $30,000 for the HBLR.

          Building overpriced projects is exactly the opposite of what is needed to demonstrate transit is viable. High-cost projects make fiscal conservatives groan; low-cost projects make them excited. The relative success of LRT in Houston, Denver, and Phoenix has led to planning additional lines. So has the success of rail in Calgary and Vancouver. Cities that you’d never expect to be into transit suddenly started loving trains once confronted with a reasonably priced, high-ridership public transit system.

          • Anon256

            I agree that Canada is a fair comparison, and that the costs of NY (and to some extent other northeast) projects are absurd. Does this mean we just give up on expansion, as Rogoff seems to suggest? Or is there another answer?

          • I don’t think giving up on expansion is the answer, no. Part of the answer is to build on the relatively successful lines, and learn from their examples. Another part is that reforming FRA regulations would allow building decent commuter lines at low cost, providing low-hanging fruit in terms of cost per rider. A third part is just learning from other countries’ plans. Singapore considers its education system deficient, so it sends people to the West to learn how things work there and report back. The US could do the same with public transportation.

          • Anon256

            I definitely agree with points 1 and 2, and agree with 3 inasmuch as we definitely need to get those planning and managing transit to see past “not invented here”/American exceptionalism and embrace solutions that work elsewhere better than anything works here (e.g. ETCS). Travel junkets always seemed like a pretty inefficient way to accomplish this though. If we want to find out how things are done in another country, why can’t we just email and ask?

            For something like the Second Avenue Subway, is there really that much “poor planning”? Is this with respect to construction methods used, or what? As for contractor corruption… what do other countries do about that?

          • EngineerScotty

            Widespread corruption in the private sector is usually a good indication of corruption (or at least capture) in the public sector. In areas where government is functioning properly, corruption in the private sector is dealt with by the usual law enforcement means–fines, and in egregious cases, prison.

          • Much of what I know about explanations, rather than just the fact that American projects cost more, comes from reading Second Avenue Sagas comments, so take it with a grain of salt. But apparently, best industry practice is for projects are drawn to be easy for every qualified contractor to bid. In US transit projects, the specs are so byzantine that the only contractors who care to bid are sleazebags who can’t get private sector jobs. In New York, which has a history of being burned by contractors, this is especially bad: the combination of exceptionally complex specs and a multi-year bull run in private-sector construction left the MTA with the worst of the worst.

  • Mad Park

    And to get to Zach’s “yes/and” we need to say “No more/now less” and zero out about 1/3 of the Pentagon’s budget right away. Non highway transport can and should approximately equal “highway” spending within half a decade so. When petrol IS $10/US gallon (in 2010 dollars) which it surely will be, we cannot be scrambling to make up for time wasted fussing over “either/or”. Sadly, I doubt any of today’s “Leaders have the spine or the will to say, once and for all, “No more foreign wars.”

  • This is fantastic!

    Can I fan this guy?

    The first Transit Realist to appear in a long time…and he’s 100% right!

  • Peter Smith

    is this guy a Republican? whatever the case, I’m glad he’s advocating for bike lanes (“paint is cheap”) rather than exorbitantly-expensive buses.

  • Tom Rubin

    @Yonah Freemark: You state: “Case in point is Sacramento, Mr. Rogoff argued, which asked the FTA for New Starts funds to build a new light rail line but which had its application denied earlier this year because of insufficient operations support for existing lines. Mr. Rogoff seemed to be suggesting that future New Starts grants will be dependent on higher local operations revenues. He seemed to be offended by the mere idea that any transit agency would want to expand given current fiscal circumstances.”

    The problem is very simple: if a transit system cannot afford to maintain and operate its current transit infrastructure, then why should anyone expect that the system will be able to afford to maintain and operate a larger system, particularly if the expansion is a transit mode that is more expensive to operate and maintain? The key problem is NOT that the downturn in the economy has reduced funding for transit agencies, the problem is that many transit agencies were way underwater during the preceding decade of huge economic growth – check out New York, Los Angeles, Chicago for examples, just to start with the three largest U.S. urbanized areas.

    You state, “Yet the unfortunate reality for Mr. Rogoff is that the federal government’s steadfast unwillingness to help cover operations spending is the primary reason agencies haven’t been able to maintain service levels during the economic downturn.”

    True, but there are two reasons why this is the case: (1) The Members of Congress have decided this is the way it should be, and (2) Local and state officials want it this way, and have pressed their representatives in Congress to make it so.

    Moreover, you can’t blame the Federal government for this. You will find the exact same condition in many state and local funding statutes and ordinances, from MARTA’s long-standing spend-half-the-sales-tax-revenues-on-rail-expansion to LA MTA’s 2008 Measure R, which devoted the largest share of transit funds for rail expansion. I can go on and on, but I hope the point is made.

    You state, “Then came Mr. Rogoff’s bizarre assertion that the majority of state of good repair expenses that are in rail and that therefore the “honest” thing to do would be to invest more in bus networks instead. “The deferred maintenance backlog for the entire transit universe is roughly $78 billion,” said the FTA Administrator. “But you should know that fully 75 percent of that figure is to replace rail assets.”

    WHY do you consider this bizarre? Rail is extremely expensive to maintain and renew and replace when directly compared to bus. Isn’t it perfectly logical to stop expanding rail systems, and further increasing the further funding shortfalls for capital replacement, when the current bills can’t be paid, and there is no existing methodology of paying for the past-due costs; not even a prospect with a reasonable chance of coming into being.

    What is “bizarre” about not wanted to make decisions that would cause the current shortfall to get much bigger by building more rail lines that can’t be afforded until we can figure out to pay for what we have now? Particularly since there is an alternative that is far more economical?

    You state, “Thus globally, rail just means more expenses for the FTA, not government in general, which still must pay for road maintenance. And there far more state of good repair needs, worth up to one hundred billions dollars a year, for roadways. To blame transit agencies for focusing on rail because those systems put more of the funding onus on the FTA is absurd.”

    Actually, no, it isn’t.

    Unfortunately, the same people who made the current decisions on how to fund transit and what to fund are pretty much the same people who made the road financing decisions. Unlike transit, where the user fees covered 23% of expenditures (for 2007, APTA 2009 Public Transportation Fact Book, Table 2), road user fees exceeded government road expenditures in the same year. However, significant portions of these road user fees were diverted for non-road purposes, such as the $.0286 of the $.184 Federal gasoline excise charge that is dedicated to transit, not to mention the extensive use of “flexible” funds such as STP and CMAQ for transit purposes – or local diversions like the nickel of Texas’ $.20/gallon that goes for K-12 education.

    Yes, it is unfair to give all the blame for road maintenance shortfalls to transit, but it is certainly fair to give it a good part of it. Not FTA, of course, but Congress, which makes the rules, and the transit agencies that have lobbied for them.

    You state, “Putting aside the fact that it would be impossible under federal rules, does anyone seriously think that New York should stop building the Second Avenue Subway or the LIRR East Side Access project and use the funds to pay for the daily functioning of the buses or subways? Aren’t the long-term benefits of continuing investment in these capital expenditures worth the seeming hypocrisy of simultaneously cutting operations?”

    Your argument is that the proper response to the current deep shortfall in transit funding that is causing significant cutbacks in transit is to spend billions more on rail transit systems where there is no funding to operate and maintain it – even if there is funding to complete it.

    There is no doubt that this corridor is extremely transit-intensive and the current single heavy rail line on the East Side of Manhattan is incredibly overcrowded. However, we are talking about an expenditure of $4,866 million for a 2.3-mile, three-station rail line. (FTA, 2010 “New Starts” report to Congress, page A-47 – and the full line is 8.5 miles, costing well – well – over $10 billion.

    Does it really seem all that strange to suggest that it might be a good idea to put this project on hold while MTA tries to figure out how to make its finances work long enough that it might have a chance to pay for operating this? By the way, the new ridership on this line is projected at 2% of the total; the other 98% are existing transit riders. (FTA, 2005 New Starts Report, page A-301.)

    You state, “Yet the saddest part about Mr. Rogoff’s statements is that he ignores a basic political reality: Without those big new rail programs he criticizes as too expensive, there would be little support for more funding for operations and maintenance funding at the local level; those projects are what unify advocacy for broader transportation expenditures.”

    There is some degree of truth in this – but, there is also the underlying reality that much of the current shortfall in transit funding is due to past transit funding expansion plans that overemphasized capital expansion over operating and capital renewal and replacement – the way to get of this hole is not to dig in deeper by passing more and more new transit taxes for capital expansion, such as been the case in Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle in recent years, to name just a few.

    @Peter Brassard:

    You state: “No one will disagree that transit system maintenance should be improved and not ignored. Rogoff misses the point entirely. Yes rail projects are more expensive than busses or rapid bus. The cheaper alternative of rapid bus may increase ridership to some extent, but in numerous examples around the country rail transit attracts greater ridership than busses, even if only in the form of the simplest of streetcars. In addition, rail improvements attract real estate development dollars, buses do not, which has been proven repeatedly. If increasing ridership is a goal, rail transit needs to be part of the transit mix even in the smallest cities or metropolitan areas.”
    The basic problem is the very high cost of adding riders through rail, as opposed to bus. For example, in Los Angeles, during the period 1996-2007, the taxpayer subsidy to add a bus rider was $1.40, compared to $26 for guideway transit riders – and there was absolutely no shortage of new bus riders.
    As to rail attracting development and bus not, well, as to bus, ever been to Curitiba? How about Ottawa?
    Actually, a better question is, does EITHER attract development? Or is such development due to other factors, such as zoning, governmental subsidies, and, well, creative counting by those pushing rail transit?
    Even the most adamant rail transit advocates understand that there are some urbanized areas and some corridors where there is simply nowhere remotely close to sufficient demand to begin to justify rail transit; it just costs far too much to build, to operate, to maintain, and to renew and replace.
    @BruceMcF
    You state, “The question regarding the Curitiba model … is which US city is willing to hand over a third of its streets to use for the BRT system? “
    I don’t believe that you understand how the transit system in Curitiba works. The vast majority of the system operates on city streets – very often. There are five dedicated busways, each with two lanes reserved for buses. For much of these, there are “regular” rubber tire traffic lanes on one or both sides of the busway lanes. More important, for most of these, there are one-way express streets on either side of the busway streets reserved for regular cars.
    @EngineerScotty
    You state, “Differing costs of labor–making hiring tons of bus drivers a more reasonable proposition than it would be in the US.”
    Actually, what most people don’t know is that rail transit is NOT less-labor intensive than bus; in fact, unless the rail system is REALLY carrying a lot of people, bus will be far more productive.
    People who do not know what is going on – and, unfortunately, some that do – will point out that a single rail operator can carry 1,000 or so riders, while a bus driver can only carry 60 (or perhaps 90 or so on an articulated bus). There is some truth to this, but, how about the fare inspectors on light rail or the station attendants on heavy rail? How about maintenance-of-way employees? Then, you have to consider that no one but an idiot would build a rail line except where there was extremely high demand; but bus, with its very low comparative capital costs, can be operated on low-demand lines – such as rail feeder routes. When you do an apples-to-apples comparison, such as BRT vs. LRT, bus will generally be very competitive and will frequently kick tail on employee productivity.
    @Ben Ross
    You state, “The Curitiba land use rules were imposed by a military dictatorship.”
    Hardly. The Mayor who was the key driver of the Curitiba bus system was elected in a fair local democratic election and reelected with even larger majorities. Actually, they were driven more by economic results than anything else – the high-rise developments along the busways are extremely profitable and attractive investments.
    By the way, Curitiba transit has an other most interesting characteristic – it is paid for by user fees, with almost no taxpayer subsidies, INCLUDING the capital costs of buses, busways, and other facilities.
    The reason that Curitiba went to its bus system was that it didn’t have the money to build rail; it would have required a substantial loan from the World Bank, which it didn’t want to take on – and, once the bus system got into high gear, there was never any serious thought of going to rail, even though there are constant rumors that Curitiba is going to implement light rail. Actually, this wouldn’t really work, as there isn’t a surface light rail line anywhere than can handle the ridership of the most heavily utilized busways, with over 20,000 riders per hour past a point (a bus every 45 seconds with up to 270 riders; the most heavily utilized light rail line in the U.S. – not counting pre-Metro configurations like Muni Metro or the MBTA Green Line, which are subways under the CBD where multiple lines come together, is the LA Blue Line, with three-car trains, each with ~150 passengers, every five minutes, which is just over 5,000 passengers per hour past a point.
    @Tyler Bump:
    You state, “This may very well be the case, but to not take into account the overall size of bus versus rail transit systems and the relationship to modal choice in this country is misleading. If there are 21 percent more bus trips taken than rail trips, what does that mean when the service mileage for bus far exceeds that of transit?”
    It means that it costs the taxpayers less to carry people on bus than on rail. The national average load factors for 2007 were 10.6 for bus, 25.3 for heavy rail, and 23.4 for light rail. When you consider the relative size of the vehicles utilized, these are roughly comparable. When you consider that rail is only utilized on the most productive transit routes, it costs the taxpayers a lot less to move people on bus.

    • Matt Fisher

      Another rant from Tom Rubin above. In Ottawa, we are planning rail, but recently, I’ve become more anti-rail because the reality is that Ottawa is a small, sparsely populated city, and BRT will work just fine.

      There is no point in building rail in this day and age because I now believe we should be cost effective.

      • Matt Fisher

        Sorry about that. Anyway, I was wrong to sell out to the “reality” that rail is a “luxury we can’t afford”. I feel like a Democrat on Fox News.

  • Jim Howell

    Whether federal funds are spent for capital projects or operation and maintenance should be decided by local transit agencies, not federal bureaucrats.

    How much revenue is dispersed to each agency every year should be based on actual productivity (passenger-miles traveled). Then the main charge of the FTA would be to audit their numbers.

    The most productive agencies, those that use each mode most efficiently, would get the most federal money and the less productive ones will be quick to copy them.

    • Anon256

      Not all passenger-miles are created equal. A transit passenger-mile between downtown and midtown Manhattan generates a lot more economic activity, and has a much greater marginal benefit compared to feasible alternatives, than a passenger-mile along an uncongested suburban freeway corridor.

      I think it might be better if FTA funds were allocated as a fixed percentage match of fare revenue. Then the level of subsidy for services would be tied to how much their riders valued them.

      Of course, any consistent system is better than the current situation of penny-wise-pound-foolish segregated budgets and annual crises/begging.

      • That seems to suggest that the benefits received by NON-passengers increase and decrease in strict proportion to the benefits received by the passengers. And there is no reason to believe that the third party benefits do line up directly with passenger benefits. Except for subsidies TO a passenger of a specific type, such as youth and the elderly – these would make sense to provide with a fixed discount that is made good to the transport service provider by the government.

        Other than that, a mix of a fixed payment per resident based on the best quality of service provided to that resident, and a payment per passenger mile would give a good mix of support for both third party access benefits and third party service benefits.

  • Matt Fisher

    Actually, Tom Rubin is right. Ottawa’s Transitway has brought examples of TOD, showing this is not unique to rail, around Transitway stations. But in another sense, there has been big box opening around Transitway stations in the time I’ve been living in Ottawa. BRT can attract development like rail. I have changed my mind and decided that BRT can be just as good as rail.

    • Matt Fisher

      Sorry once again. BRT is not “as good as rail”, but it works and has a place in lots of situations, since most cities in North America are currently autocentric, not to mention sparsely populated. And BRT and rail are complementary.

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