Talking Points Memo published an AP article on a new study that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) compiled at the request of a group of 11 US Senators led by Dick Durbin (D-IL).
The scope included nine transit operators across the nation that together deliver 80% of all rail transit boardings, based on 2006 data. The largest of these was New York City Transit with 1804 million annual passenger boardings - about 48% of the national total of 3775 million. The BART network was also included, weighing in with 99 million, just ahead of the Long Island Railroad with 96 million.
Many of the agencies studied also operate buses and/or ferries but the focus was kept narrowly on rail services, a total of 14 modes. The objective was to highlight the huge backlog of maintenance works, called "state of good repair" in industry parlance. How the available funds are distributed was last defined in the TEA-21 law of 1998. Once new fixed guideways, including Bus Rapid Transit and HOV lane-miles, have been in operation for seven years, they become eligible for some federal funding to assist with maintenance. As a result, the share of funds available to the oldest and most heavily used systems, i.e. those included in the study, has declined even though a rising share of their assets are in urgent need of repair or replacement. In particular, failure to replace broken or worn out components in a timely fashion can compromise operational safety - it's not just a customer satisfaction and retention issue.
In total, FTA estimates that the operators included in the study have accumulated a total state of good repair backlog of $50 billion. After that is eliminated, they will need an additional $5.9 billion per year to maintain that status.
The study comes as Congress is gearing up to overhaul highway and transit programs over the next six years through soon-to-be-introduced legislation that some lawmakers estimated will seek about a half trillion dollars.
If passed, this new surface transportation bill would amount to $85 billion annually, of which only a fraction would go toward rail maintenance. Even that sum may not be nearly large enough: the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently published a report card on the national infrastructure, concluding that some $2.2 trillion would need to be invested to bring all of it up from a D average to straight A's. Granted, ASCE is not a disinterested party in this context, but the sum being considered in Congress amounts to just 25% of the number suggested. The upshot is that the conflict between maintaining existing and building new infrastructure such as HSR will remain acute far beyond the next six years.
The concept of using local transit services as HSR feeders will only work if they offer an acceptable customer experience. How many potential HSR customers would be prepared to ride BART if its interiors looked as bad as this subway train in New York?
Friday, May 1, 2009