Life under BART. Photo by the author.
Peter Rogoff, head of the FTA, announced a change in tactics at a meeting of transit leaders on May 15th in Boston. Rogoff noted, "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? Might it make more sense for us to roll up our sleeves, and target our resources on repairing the system we have?"
This soundly echoes the MTC’s tentative statement in its recent report where it noted (in a one-sentence apology), “And at times – we as a region and as a commission – have made decisions to invest in system expansion when reinvesting in the existing system might have been the wiser choice.” Now it sounds as if our local funding agency is finally aware of the problem, but they still insist on supporting the Livermore, San Jose and Antioch BART extensions. BART to Warm Springs is being constructed as you read this…
Both the MTC and the FTA are enablers for politicians to cut ribbons on shiny new things, while the agencies do not have enough funds to operate the empire they have, much less an expanded one. But it’s not just operating expenses, it’s also maintenance. A recent FTA report studying the seven largest rail operators revealed deferred maintenance of $50 billion dollars (or $78 billion for all 690 transit systems).
Rogoff went on to say that this shortfall would only bring the assets to moderately decent condition – not pristine condition. He noted that to attract transit riders, we must get as close to pristine as we can. He then went on to name recent transit failures, namely, Boston’s cable fire which sent 20 passengers to the hospital for smoke inhalation, or Cleveland’s retaining wall at Lee Station which closed the station as it crumbled, or three broken rails on Washington’s Metro, and a signal system failure on Chicago Transit Authority’s Orange Line, which reduced the speed to 35 mph.
Then Rogoff fails to solve the problem. He thinks buses are cheap and rails are expensive. Certainly rail looks expensive compared to buses. The bus right-of-way is paid for by a separate agency and no one knows what the cost of running buses does to the highway system. Rail has its own right-of-way and the costs of that stick out like a sore thumb. In a simplistic world, rail, with a higher capacity of moving people, is more expensive than buses, that have a lower capacity of moving people.
Rogoff is not completely wrong. Rail or even bus expansion must take into account the additional costs of operating the new system. FTA does not provide operating funds – only capital maintenance or system expansion. So what do we get? A tiny bit of maintenance and a large bit of system expansion. That pleases the politicians but ends up reducing the transit services due to a shortfall in maintenance and operating expenses. The politicians are there for the ribbon cutting but are never in the picture when the transit agency cuts service to survive.
To give Rogoff credit, he has pinpointed the problem and perhaps we can slow bizarre system expansion (such as the Oakland Airport Connector) but he has not offered a solution.