» 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)