» 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)