Finding the Means to Keep Transit Running

» An investment of billions of dollars in a new rail line should be backed by a guarantee of minimum operations standards.

In a hearing in front of the Senate Banking Committee yesterday, Federal Transit Administration head Peter Rogoff spelled out his agency’s priorities: Maintaining and renovating the nation’s existing public transportation networks, and providing temporary federal assistance for bus and rail operations.

Keeping transit running should be one of the nation’s top priorities, but the FTA has had to mostly stand by in recent years as region after region has experienced cuts in the services provided by local transit systems. This coming in the midst of a recession and mounting gas prices, each of which make a larger percentage of the population in need of non-automobile-based travel options. Thus the interest of Mr. Rogoff and the Obama Administration in general in providing aid to local agencies may come as a relief — if members of Congress decide to jump on board.

Just this week, Washington’s Metro announced that its $66 million budget deficit expected for next year would have to be covered by some sort of service cuts. Top on its list is a proposal to decrease weekend train frequencies from every 12 minutes to every 18 on Saturdays and from every 15 minutes to every 20. Riders are being asked to complete a survey to express their opinions. With Rogoff’s aid, the District could potentially avoid such cutbacks in the future — though Washington, one of the nation’s only regions mostly unaffected by the recession, may not qualify as “economically distressed,” which is a criteria the FTA wants to use to determine which agencies would be able to take advantage of operations grants.

Similarly useful would be the FTA’s State of Good Repair grants, which the agency wants to expand significantly and which would make it more feasible for cities like Chicago to keep their older rail lines in constant use. Both this and the transit operations aid initiative would require the Congress to approve at least some form of the President’s proposed 2012 budget, a prospect that may be dimming in the face of disagreement about how to pay for increases in federal spending on transportation.

Yet the problems suffered by Washington’s transit system due to its inability to cover operations costs without reducing frequencies say a lot about that region’s commitment to transit and imply that regional authorities are willing to sacrifice good service in the name of making budgets line up. The mere fact that Metro, a system that cost billions of dollars to construct, would ever offer services at headways of more than every 15 or even 10 minutes at any time, is disturbing.

As it moves forward with the funding of new transportation projects across the country through the New Starts process, the FTA works to ensure that the regions to which it is providing financing have the resources to guarantee that initial investments in capital are backed by transit operations reserves. Indeed, one of the primary criteria the federal government uses for establishing whether an agency should invest in a new project is the stability of that agency’s service funding. Theoretically, if a transit provider cannot show that it will be able to commit to the funds to operate its vehicles, it will not receive construction funds.

But as has been demonstrated by the Washington example, those assurances can only go so far — especially when tax revenues decline substantially because of recessions. Thus the rationale behind advocating using federal funds to cover those operations costs, despite a recent history of the Department of Transportation only spending on capital initiatives. (I have argued that it may be more economically rational for the central government to invest primarily in operations and cities to spend on capital, the inverse of what occurs today.)

Yet as the FTA considers these future changes in what it agrees to fund, shifting more national dollars to transit operations, it must also establish standards that define what minimum standards need to look like. There is a significant difference between offering bus service to a neighborhood twice a day and providing subway trains every ten minutes at least. For an increasing share of the population to agree to use transit, they must be assured that buses and trains will arrive frequently, at least on primary lines. Washington’s initiative to cut service — a proposal that would significantly limit any perceived time advantages of taking Metro — runs against those forces.

Of course the reduction in Metro offerings is not the choice of local transit officials: It is a political compromise aimed to avoid criticism from residents over increases in fares and it is the result of a lack of political will to expand revenue from tax sources. Yet the loss in utility experienced by everyone in expanding waiting times for trains is dramatic; an increase in fares that protects — or even expands — service would probably be more beneficial to the region’s inhabitants, even its poorest, who need transit more than anyone else and who shouldn’t be left behind by inconvenient service standards. Ineffective, infrequent service turns off current and potential riders.

If the FTA ever moves forward with this idea, it must take steps to push transit agencies to commit to financing frequent service on all of their major lines in exchange for covering short-term revenue gaps.

As a side note, Washington Metro’s position is a structural one that is difficult to work around. The system was built to handle huge crowds at rush hours, but its weekend traffic is too low to justify too-frequent operations because of the length of trains (at least four cars) and the cost of paying drivers. How can transit agencies make an acceptable trade-off between building a system that offers great rush-hour capacity to a huge percentage of the workforce and guarantees convenient access to the people who need to use the network at off-peak times?

For rail systems, one solution is automation: By removing the need to have a driver, the cost of train operation can be reduced substantially — mostly to the price of providing traction power to trainsets. If Washington Metro’s services were provided as such, trains at off-peak hours could be reduced to two-car sets and provide double the frequency for a lower cost than currently provided by its person-driven four car trains. In the short term, converting existing systems to such standards may be unrealistic, but such an investment should be incorporated into agency long-term plans because they reduce operations costs and make more possible the maintenance of all-day, all-week frequent service.

Image above: Miami’s Tri-Rail commuter rail system, from Flickr user Bob B. Brown (cc)

58 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Tom West

    Fully automated systems have their costs primarily dictated by hours of service, rather than total number of trains. Example: Vancouver runs its SkyTrain very frequently when it’s open, regardelss of hour. They have to pay control room supervisors to be on teh job until 1am, so the costs of running 20tph rather than 10tph are small.

  • Hey Yonah nice post. Couple things to add:

    1. Metro runs no trains shorter than six cars.

    2. Since the 2009 crash all trains have been off auto control. This has contributed to a worse quality of ride and scheduling problems as well as train bunching, simply because humans are not as efficient as the auto control was/is. Considering there has been no announced timetable on when the trains will first return to auto control (with a motorman still on each train in case of emergency, open and close doors, etc.), it has hard to imagine a fully automated system anytime soon.

    • Nathanael

      DC Metro still hasn’t fixed the not-fail-safe problem with their signal system, I guess. BART patched the problem with the SAME signal system back in the 80s, which makes this disgraceful.

  • astonvillan

    Metro running two car trains on weekends would be a total disaster, even four car trains would be some days since the trains are largely full on weekends anyway due to the infrequent service in the first place. Short turn trains mean that service is in the city (at least on the Red line) most weekends operating every seven to ten minutes at least in my actual experience and a little longer at night I use metro almost every weekend to go out with friends or go to D.C. United games or Caps games and would hate for services to decrease any amount. Taxes must be raised I believe and a dedicated regionwide tax should be imposed, however this will probably never happen due to the differing jurisdiction + the feds possibly. The only problem in the district is that the budget is really tight in the District and we are at a gridlock on the council on spending and taxes while proposed cuts will probably leave many more homeless and go hungry. This is a false choice really but it is one that is seemingly on the table, I am lobbying my council person (Mary Cheh) to both raise taxes on those in the top income bracket, which I am a part of, and to increase the amount of money metro receives.

  • EngineerScotty

    Minor correction, Yonah: You write

    The mere fact that Metro, a system that cost billions of dollars to construct, would ever offer services at frequencies of more than every 15 or even 10 minutes at any time, is disturbing.

    I’m sure you mean headways here. (Though mixing of headway and frequency–two parameters which are inverses of each other–seems all too commonplace…)

    • PRE

      Of course BART, which also cost billions to construct, has been running at 20 minute weekend/night headways (except for a short trial period that ended with the recession) since it was built. And yes, I agree it’s disturbing and a massive waste of a valuable resource.

  • Henry

    The problem with automation is that when it is deployed, the savings are lower than expected. One reason is because transport workers’ unions tend to maintain that a driver is needed at all times, and the public (generally) agrees.

    Toronto’s Scarborough RT has high operation costs because it puts a driver on every automated train. I believe the L line in New York City also suffers from the same problem (they couldn’t even reduce the number of operators from two to one person per train).

    Automation only works as intended if transport workers’ unions don’t interfere.

    • The L in New York was never automated. It was equipped with communication-based train control, a.k.a. moving block signaling, which increases capacity. This was bundled with going down from two employees per train to one (which was eventually torpedoed for political reasons – partly but not only union objections), but neither requires the other. Unfortunately, it made a lot of railfans believe that you can’t have OPTO without CBTC and vice versa, leading people to believe that the costs of implementing OPTO are high, where in reality they’re close to zero.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Hmm same foamers should be able to tell you how the Grand Central-Times Square shuttle was automated back in the 60s…. They didn’t bother to put it back in after the fire.

      • david vartanoff

        The sad fact is NYC operates fewer TPH than half a century ago mostly because MTA has become (IMHO) overly cautious. Worker sabotage of safety devices and drug addled wrecks in the 70s and 80s led them to neutering “high performance” cars and installing speed timers to force slower operation thus reducing potential throughput. CTA’s implementation of cab signalling and OPTO resulted in slowing of service because the T/O has to walk from one side to the other to operate doors/run the train.
        As to the NYC experiment w/automation, go here
        http://www.nycsubway.org/lines/irtshuttle.html for an account.

  • I agree with the general thrust of your post, but this year’s WMATA budget is not a good example. Most, and hopefully all, of the budget gap will in fact be made up without service cuts, and probably without taking from maintenance. While weekend service cuts are indeed on the table, the local governments are coming up with much more new money. Maryland and the various Virginia jurisdictions have already said they are willing come up with addtional money to avoid the weekend cuts; the remaining question is the District of Columbia. This article is a good summary of where things stand now.

    We have a different structural problem here – Metro winds up with a budget set by whichever of the 3 jurisdictions is least willing & able to contribute money. I don’t know how many other areas have this kind of problem.

    • Ted King

      Caltrain (San Francisco / San Jose) is similar in that its funding comes from three county-based transit systems (SFMuni, Samtrans, VTA). Unlike WMATA, Caltrain is NOT the dominant regional system. The uncertain funding has been in the news several times in the last few years.

      P.S. SFMuni is BOTH a county system and a municipal system due to the dual nature of San Francisco.

  • Danny

    This is why liberal transit activists can be so dangerous. Sure, they fight for transit, which is good…but they inadvertently defend all of the things that make transit horrible, like a retarded focus on specific silver bullet technologies and defending high labor costs. It reduces the quality AND quantity of transit, and it hurts everybody.

    • Jason

      Why don’t we see some conservative transit activists step up and provide an alternate vision of how public transit should be run then?

    • Sean

      Sheesh, generalize much.

      Don’t let reality get in the way of your ridiculous strawman argument.

      Unless you plan on providing concrete examples of “liberal” transit activism leading to negative results you will deservedly get laughed off this site.

      • Danny

        SF Muni. The least cost efficient transit system in the nation by a large margin, thanks to SF’s unwillingness to confront their unions.

        • Nathanael

          That is far from the only thing wrong with the way SF Muni is managed — blaming the unions is dumb and simplistic. In fact, Muni is routinely saddled with costs from other city agencies who use it as a dumping ground for things they want to take out of their budget. And that’s just the start. There was an excoriating article on “San Franscico municipal politics” a few years back documenting the attitude common among political insiders that efficiency simply *didn’t matter at all*, and if we were paying twice the market price for half the quality, why that was simply because San Francisco was special — it’s not just Muni, it’s actually one of the better agencies, I’ve been told to try the city police or the sewer department for horror stories.

          Consider that transit activists have roundly condemned the design of the “Central Subway” and before that complained about the questionable 3rd St extension; while calling for a sensible Geary Subway. No effect on SF politicians. SF has its own special attitude.

          • Danny

            I know it is more than just the unions. But the out of control unions are a direct result of liberal transit activism, whereas some other things can just be chalked up to SF culture.

            • The transit activists in the Bay Area tend to be exceptionally hostile to the transit providers, including union traditions. Start a conversation with any of those activists about the Central Subway, BART to San Jose, or the BART unions’ 10-minute break rule.

              • david vartanoff

                Speaking only for myself, both BART to SJ and the Central Subway are grossly bad projects. In the latter case, the overly deep tunnel design combined w/undersized station platforms means spending huge sums for a hobbled system. Worse yet, the “in system transfer” to/from the Market St Muni Metro and BART is extremely slow and inconvenient. Along with the BART-SJ mistake, these projects squander money which would be much better spent on uurban core routes actually serving dense population.
                When BART was built, it was designed to have cushy seats and carpeting to attract middle and upper class office types (yuppies in more recent parlance). Despite their best efforts, BART’s ridership is majority urban–within SF, SF to east shore of the bay and along same. The extreme distance commuters exist only in rush hour whereas the urban riders use the system all day. The transbay tunnel is de facto maxed ouit in rush, so adding any significant ridership from the San Jose extension just means clkoser in riders will be waiting to push their way in to full trains.

  • Only cities with populations greater than 200,000 receive no federal operating assistance. Personally, I have no problems with that policy. The bigger cities have enough of a population base to fund their own systems and hard decisions have to be made. Too many transit systems offer useless, cheap service now because the feds kick in 80% of the vehicle and/or 50% of the project.

    • Woody

      JAzumah, Do you have those real world examples of “useless, cheap service” on “many transit systems” that you could share with us?

      Quotes from the collected works of Ayn Rand don’t count.

      • Woody, the list of useful transit systems is shorter.

        If your bus system runs from 9AM to 5PM Monday through Friday, it is useless.

        If your bus system offers less than daily service in a non-rural setting, it is useless.

        Local transit service with headways exceeding 2 hours is useless. Headways exceeding 1 hour on local bus service is barely useful.

        I typically frown on free bus systems in general. There are exceptions, but you aren’t doing any favors if a free bus service isn’t well utilized. Resort areas are the only places where free bus service reliably perform well.

        One way loop bus routes exceeding 30 minutes in length are typically useless.

        Many agencies buy buses that are too big and get eaten by the fuel monster. Conversely, many agencies also buy light duty buses for medium duty work or medium duty buses for heavy duty work, resulting in the destruction or near destruction of the federally funded asset.

        In the transportation community, we have too many people that think that the more transit there is, the better off we will be. However, this reality is far from true. Agencies have to be good stewards of funding and it is clearly apparent that transit agencies want the Feds to bail them out. Meanwhile, everyone else wants to see at least 90 cents of every dollar on the road. Furthermore, they want to see buses and trains that get used. Honestly, those aren’t outrageous requests.

        It’s not that I adore Ayn Rand. It is the fact that I operate in the private transportation sector and for all of our faults (such as the evil practice of trying to make money), we can get things done in a less complex and cheaper manner than the public sector. The private sector is hurting too, but the entities that are surviving are evaluating things and trying to do more with less. Despite a shrinking budget, NY’s MTA has vastly improved communication with its customers and are starting to approach projects with cost effectiveness in mind. As a result, they are doing more with less.

        The other issue is that local funding equals local control. You do not want Washington centrally planning transportation. As it stands now, it takes 4-6 years to get a shovel in the ground for rail because of the existing requirements. Do proponents of federal operating funding want a minimum farebox recovery ratio?

        • One relatively minor point: I’m not sure local control is all that great. For all of the awfulness of Washington, Albany is even worse. And when it’s necessary for Albany and Trenton to cooperate, everything goes to hell. Last time such cooperation was required, the result was Port Authority, hardly the best-run agency around.

          So since federal funding is not necessarily bad, the question becomes why deny it to cities. Cities are already paying more taxes to the federal government than they get back, often because of rules like this; urban streets get discriminated against in gas tax funding, and have since the 1910s. I doubt any private-sector entity would voluntarily pay more in taxes just to be able to say it’s not getting anything from the feds, so why require cities to go that road?

          • Nathanael

            *Local* control is OK at the moment for transportation, in most places, Orange County, CA aside. State control is horrible and should not be confused with local control; state borders are arbitrary and gerrymandered and most state governments are utter messes.

            Albany and Trenton, yeech. Manhattan, Hoboken, and Newark, cooperating, might have a decent chance of getting something done. Sigh.

            • Adirondacker12800

              What do Manhattan, Hoboken, Newark and Jersey City need to do? Most riders would give their eye teeth to have the transportation options between those places.

              • Nathanael

                Nothing much, really, but if they wanted to do something, they’d probably be *able* to, which was my point. In contrast, trying to get something through Albany and Trenton — yeeargh.

              • Anon256

                Fare integration between the subway and PATH would be nice, and would have happened decades ago if it weren’t for Albany-Trenton issues. Infrastructure integration would be even better.

              • Adirondacker12800

                Traditionally the H&M had distance based fares. How do you integrate that with the flat fare charged on the subway? More recently the fare on PATH has been lower than the fare on the subway. Wave a magic wand and only have one set of turnstiles at Herald Square… how do you know who is paying a PATH fare and who is paying a subway fare?
                To integrate PATH with the IRT you need to build six track IRT lines. The headways on PATH are sub three minute on the uptown and downtown branches, there isn’t the capacity on the existing IRT lines to handle that.

              • david vartanoff

                Fare integration is a first step. Treating PATH/MTA transfers the same as a walking transfer between for example Astor Place and 8th St/B’way only requires a revenue sharing agreement. As to ROW integration, there are several potential routes. Uptown PATH riders looking out right hand windows leaving 9th street see the stub originally designed to go east to connecr w/the IRT @ Astor Place. I have thought that having a 9th St Crosstown route w. a terminal under Tompkins Sq Park is ideal An intermediate station connecting to both the BMT @ 8th B’way and the IRT @ Astor Place ould give riders two uptown options. Alternatively, making the station stretch from Astor to Second Ave would challenge MTA to restore a 7th/St Marks station to the fabled SAS.

                The PATH Lex connection linked by Anon 256 is an interesting idea however, rebuilding PATH to have 10 car trains is a major issue and there is no way we want to reduce sardine space on the Lex Local.

              • Anon256

                “Wave a magic wand and only have one set of turnstiles at Herald Square… how do you know who is paying a PATH fare and who is paying a subway fare?” How do you know who is paying an IND fare and who is paying a BMT fare? You don’t, it’s one fare, that’s what fare integration means. The savings on fare collection/equipment would help offset the lost revenue from transferring passengers some, though the integrated fare would probably still have to rise a bit.

                Infrastructure integration would obviously be harder, but note that the Newark-WTC route can already take 10-car trains, so only Hoboken and Newport would need to be extended in the PATH-Lex plan.

              • Adirondacker12800

                Fare integration is a first step. Treating PATH/MTA transfers the same as a walking transfer between for example Astor Place and 8th St/B’way only requires a revenue sharing agreement.

                Fare integration with the 8th/Christopher Street bus because the only people who are going to walk that far can’t read subway maps. There’s better alternatives for getting to destinations the Lex takes you than transferring at Astor Place. There’s already and excellent connection to the BMT lines at Herald Square.

                The PATH Lex connection linked by Anon 256 is an interesting idea however,</em.

                Very. Gonna be one steep climb from the PATH tubes to the Lexington Ave tunnels. I suspect there's a bit of infrastructure in the way. The decade or so that the World Trade Center stop is out of service might be a bit of a problem too.

              • You don’t need the trains to share tracks for them to have integrated fares. The U-Bahn and S-Bahn of any German city don’t. Neither do the IRT and IND/BMT for that matter.

              • david vartanoff

                Checked w/ a PATH knowledgeable chap who replied that PATH and IRT car fleets CANNOT cross operate due to extremely tight clearances and differing body profiles. As to length 10s are to be possible on NWK-WTC after several platforms are lengthened; HOB-33rd not likely given constraints of other ROWs under Sixth Ave and in Hoboken’s case Landmark status. All the more reason to seriously consider the 9th St extension.

              • Adirondacker12800

                PATH and IRT car fleets CANNOT cross operate due to extremely tight clearances and differing body profiles.

                IRT cars are too big for PATH. PATH cars could run on IRT tracks with little problem. Where you are going to run them on IRT tracks with all those IRT trains in the way is different question. The meta-question is why you would want to.

                All the more reason to seriously consider the 9th St extension.

                I’ve considered it and unless I was going to Cooper Union why would I want to use it?

              • david vartanoff

                @Adirondacker12800 Last I knew the East Village was a vibrant place involving both residents and visitors to clubs etc. If, as I suggested above, the terminal were TSP, with the intermediate @ Astor, that just makes transit more flexible. As a bonus midtown east workers have another way from either Jersey or the West Village to their jobs.

        • Nathanael

          “It is the fact that I operate in the private transportation sector”

          I don’t believe you.

          Why? Because there is no private transportation sector. There is only a public-private-partnership transportation sector.

          If you work for, say, Norfolk Southern, you’re close. But no cigar; you have government-granted rights of way usually taken with the assistance of eminent domain.

          If you do anything on the public roads, you’re not a fully private operator, you’re simply a beneficiary of government subsidies.

          Which is fine. Just don’t delude yourself.

        • Nathanael

          “we can get things done in a less complex and cheaper manner than the public sector.”

          Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. Private sector entities are not immune from becoming bloated, complex, overpriced, stultifying bureaucracies. Just ask anyone working at any huge multinational corporation, or anyone “small” who’s tried to make a business deal with any of them.

          “Despite a shrinking budget, NY’s MTA has vastly improved communication with its customers and are starting to approach projects with cost effectiveness in mind. As a result, they are doing more with less.”

          And yes, this is a good idea, private or public, and shows that Jay Walder was a good choice for a manager.

        • Woody

          JAzumah, Above in this thread you allege that “liberal transit activists can be so dangerous. Sure, they fight for transit, which is good…but they inadvertently defend all of the things that make transit horrible.”

          I have trouble comprehending the meaning of this language. Personally I’m a liberal, and in my small way perhaps I’m a transit activist. But I never think of myself as a “liberal transit activist” or LTA. I just can’t sort out what makes some transit activists into LTAs. You seem to be claiming that it is only the LTAs are responsible for a long list of stupidities, such as:

          Bus systems that run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday thru Friday.

          Bus systems that offer less than daily service in a non-rural setting.

          Local transit service with headways exceeding 2 hours is useless. (Refers to what? Is there a light rail or streetcar service in the U.S. with this problem? Maybe some commuter lines. But what makes you think that commuter lines — from the richest, whitest suburbs to downtown with no service to poor, inner-city neighborhoods — is in any way a “liberal” idea?)

          Headways exceeding 1 hour on local bus service.

          One way loop bus routes exceeding 30 minutes in length.

          Agencies that buy buses that are too big and get eaten by the fuel monster.

          Agencies that buy buses that are too small for the job.

          Etc.
          ———————

          But JAzumah, I see nothing on this list that I defend, and nothing that seems to be “liberal”. Nothing.

          Rather, I’d argue that running infrequent, inadequate service and buying inadequate buses for the job seem exactly the penny-pinching and skimping characteristics of the contemporary Republican conservative policies. They are examples of government begrudgingly providing the minimum services while cutting taxes on rich property owners, rather than government trying to solve mobility problems for all segments of the population.

          I’m stumped to think of liberals opposing weekend transit service or defending only operating outside of the hours when most people want to get to work or back home. Liberals want to spend more and do more, I’ll accept that generalization. That does not mean that we are against good management and good service.

          The ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ approach to public investment and expenditures seems to be to a conservative monopoly these days. Nothing to do with LTAs or any other liberals. And for that matter, while I have my own issues with the unions, I don’t see a union role in any of the stupidities you listed.

          • “JAzumah, Above in this thread you allege that “liberal transit activists can be so dangerous. Sure, they fight for transit, which is good…but they inadvertently defend all of the things that make transit horrible.”

            Perhaps you mean Danny’s post. Personally, I consider politics to be a big part of the problem. I think you have us mixed up. Democrats and Republicans are on the same team in my opinion and that is why both groups are generally ineffective. I don’t recall mentioning unions in my post either.

            • Woody

              Oh, sorry. I did conflate Danny’s post and yours. They do seem to have some overlap in tone or attitude, but not that much. I do apologize for my confusion.

    • So what if cities have a larger population base? They also have a higher population to serve. A rural township that can tax 20,000 people to serve 20,000 people is no more deserving of federal money than a city that can tax a million people to serve a million people. If anything, the city needs more, since it needs more transit per capita, just as the rural township needs (and uses) more roads per capita.

      • Ocean Railroader

        What the Feds could do to make up for this is help the big cities with big ticket up grade costs and repairs such as they could give the city of Chicago 70% of the cost to replace that falling down 100 year old two to three mile section of Red EL Line with that new double track subway or four track EL they want to replace it with. That wouldn’t a bad idea in that it would be a soild built thing that would help free up the city’s transit oprating buget for other things in the city.

        • The Feds are going down this road slowly. The warnings about deteriorating infrastructure is a shot across the bow that agencies that want expansion money better maintain their existing systems. I would like to see the federal gas tax increase to 50 cents overnight to speed a new section called the Aging Infrastructure Program for both highways and transit.

        • Nathanael

          The cities with the biggest maintenance backlog problems are the ones which bought up formerly-for-profit rail systems before they shut down. Those systems had backlogs of deferred maintenance when they were *bought*. Federal help is appropriate.

          Those cities are still better off than the ones which allowed their systems to get torn out completely. The ones with legacy rail systems still, uniformly, have better service than the comparable ones without. But they have had to spend almost as much money as if they were building from scratch.

          • When you do asinine things like force a rail system to hold the same fare for 44 years (as was done in NYC), I would hardly call that a failure of the free market. The backlogs were intentionally created and this is how the private sector was shoved out of the “lucrative” subway business. Standard operating procedure.

            In NYC, we aren’t doing any serious fixes until the system collapses. We have had numerous signal incidents in the system already this year. They are waiting for things to start falling on people despite being able to draw federal money now for rehab. The MTA was doing full station rehabs because they knew how behind they were, but Albany stopped coughing up the matching money. Now, we are relegated to patchwork. We have seen this movie before.

            • You’re right that the NYC subway was regulated to death, but railroads elsewhere in the US that were not as tightly regulated still engaged in deferred maintenance. The worst example is the Milwaukee Road, which scrapped its electrification system in 1973, and had been undermaintaining its fixed plant in order to look better in an attempt at a merger.

      • Rural mobility burns cash, but that is a reality. Rural areas provide a large portion of America’s food production and must have infrastructure well beyond their financial capacity to support. I like eating and I support such efforts to enable me to eat.

        Cities generally have a higher taxing capability per capita and the reality is that the feds only generate 59% of the revenue they are spending currently. They do not have the physical capability to spend any more.

        • When I lived in Singapore, which provides no subsidies to rural areas, I ate imported food. It’s not a big deal. In fact the prices were lower than in the US, because of the predominance of food courts offering good ethnic food for fast food prices.

          • Andre L.

            That is only possible because Singapore has a small population and is surrounded by huge countries with starvation-level wage workforces that produces such “ethnic food for fast food prices” at their doorstep, in Thailand, Vietnam etc.

            In any case, talking of the need to provide transit to every small rural city with a 2-hour heyday is as (ir)rational as it is talking of proving ample expressways and free street parking at all times for people living in Manhattan. Rural cities are meant to be the domain of car transportation with some residual form of transit.

            At the worst case scenario, subsidizing taxis for the really poor (those cities have lower-than-average cost of living anyway) to get to their doctors next town is way cheaper than running buses with few, if any, passengers each run.

            Many rural roads (paved ones, not trails, not off-road tracks) that connect small cities have less than 1000 vehicles a day of traffic, and a sizable chunk of it are trucks.

            Subsidizing paved roads and a good, larger highway network to connect these areas to major centers is more sensible, financially, than put buses, let alone rail, along every American city.

            If someone really doesn’t want to be “car dependent”, than his/her place is not in Clear Brook, MN or Elk, NV or Plaquemines, LA. Likewise, if one wants convenient and prompt car access without jams and plenty of free parking, his/her place is not Manhattan or Downtown SF. Sure, it will be possible to use, inefficiently, a car in Manhattan or to use a once-a-day Mon-Fri bus in Elk, but to have expectations of “reliable, frequent and cheap” transit everywhere is not good for the public budget at all.

            • The dominant cost of food is labor, and the people working at Singaporean food court live in Singapore. Singapore does have very high internal inequality, leading to lower wages in the service sector, but its Gini index is barely higher than the USA’s. A few American metro regions, such as New York and Miami, are actually slightly more unequal than Singapore.

              Anyway, the point I’m making is not that rural areas can’t really support transit. For the most part I agree with you on that. What I’m saying is that the huge net flows of money from urban to rural areas do not do anything to reduce urban food prices. They increase rural living standards, but do not come back to the cities.

  • Alan Kandel

    Ted Balaker and Sam Staley contend in their book: “The Road More Traveled – Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, And What We Can Do About It,” that “Improved mobility makes nations more prosperous, and it does the same for cities” (p. 18). That’s a profound thought. Does transit contribute to improved mobility and hence to improved or heightened prosperity? As an integral part of the improved mobility equation, one would think it does. And assuming it does, then transit too should be provided its just due especially during times of economic duress. Heightened investment or reinvestment in said transit systems to allow for greater improvement in mobility and hence to greater economic prosperity, this should go without saying. Such enhanced mobility prompted prosperity beneficiaries need to step up to the transit-furthering plate in far greater numbers if transit is to ever have its day.

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