FTA: American Transit Systems Need $77.7 Billion in Repairs

TransitRepairCosts.pngTransit systems need billions of dollars to reach a state of good repair. Image: FTA

Americans who ride trains and buses are suffering the effects of a huge maintenance backlog, according to a new study by the Federal Transit Administration [PDF]. It would take a down payment of $77.7 billion to bring the nation’s transit systems up to a state of good repair and another $14.4 billion per year, on average, to keep transit running smoothly, safely, and comfortably for riders. 

The National State of Good Repair Assessment Study is a follow-up to a similar report issued last year, which catalogued the needs of the country’s seven largest rail systems. This year’s look widens the lens to include small and medium sized transit operators, including rural systems, and buses as well as trains. 

America’s bus system is in particularly bad condition, according to the FTA. Nine percent of all assets received the lowest rating, poor, and another 32 percent were deemed marginal. While rail is in a slightly better condition — nine percent of assets are poor, but only 17 percent are marginal — the costs of bringing rail to a state of good repair are far higher. It’ll take $59.2 billion, plus an average of $8.2 billion annually, to keep the rail system well maintained. 

Last April, the Federal Transit Administration announced a competitive grant program to try and improve the quality of the nation’s bus fleet. But though applications for the grants have totaled over $4.2 billion, the agency only has $775 million to disburse.

To put these numbers in context, the federal stimulus law provided $8.4 billion in transit aid.

Even the stimulus act’s highway spending only contributed around $16 billion to road repairs (and another $9 billion for expanding road capacity). In other words, America’s transit systems need an investment far bigger than the stimulus provided to highway repair, and fast. 

Until that happens, transit riders are going to be less comfortable, less safe, and less likely to keep riding transit. Here’s Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council, giving the issue a human face this morning: 

I find myself using DC’s Metro less and less these days, in no small part because it just doesn’t work as consistently well as I need it to in order to meet my needs.  Although our Metrorail system has never been perfect, it has always been a marvel of architectural beauty and engineering achievement, and once was the envy of the nation for its cleanliness, comfort and efficiency. 

Sadly, that is no longer the case.  Today, access to the system is made difficult by broken escalators and elevators all over the system; service can be slow and unpredictable; cars are dirty and crowded; air conditioning systems sometimes provide mediocre cooling in DC’s sweltering summer heat.

I used to take Metro all the time for commuting and frequently for other trips as well.  But, while I still use the system several times per week, frequently to shuttle around downtown for meetings, more often than not I now drive to work, shelling out $20 for parking each day and putting up with traffic hassles when I do.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Well, the good news is that many NYC Transit systems are in a state of good repair. When I went to Chicago, I was surprised how old and crummy the buses are compared with NYC.

    The primary components in poor repair many stations, which makes the subway unpleasant but doesn’t prevent it from working, and the signals, a real threat generated by the excess cost of signal system replacement.

    NYCT never did much “catch up” maintenance, other than the subway car rehabs in the 1980s. It just plugged along at a normal replacement rate enough time passed and a state of good repair was reached. But for the signal systems and stations, it never caught up to the missing work of the 1970s, and is now falling behind again.

    And of course needed expansions never happened.

    The real disaster here is financial. See that average annual investment? At the MTA, since Pataki much of that has been borrowed for. Soon all the money that could have been used for annual average replacement will be going to debt service instead. Same with the roads. Same in New Jersey.

  • I have a feeling that if you’d asked the Japanese Ministry of Rail or ADIF to look at American systems, they’d come up with a fraction of the number the FTA came up with.

    To say nothing of how SOGR is sometimes a ruse to get people to agree to large amounts of spending with no visible benefit. If New York asks for $5 billion for a subway line and it doesn’t get built, people notice. If it asks for $5 billion for good repair and stations don’t look prettier, the agencies can say it all went to back-end functions and not enough people will know to investigate further.

    It’s similar to how the good roads movement got the federal government to overinvest in roads in the mid-20th century. Various organizations, pretending to be independent but in fact plugged into the road lobby, wrote reports saying America’s roads were in a dire situation and needed urgent repairs. After the government gave them the money they asked for, they’d write another report saying the same thing a few years later, based on an escalating standard for road quality.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Well, at NYCT a little of that goes on, but not much.

    They cut way back on the expected life of certain assets, but no way they are getting replaced at anything close to that pace. For example, for signal systems they put in an expected life of 50 years, but never replaced them at a pace faster than 60 years, and now you have much of the IND over 75 years, with breakdowns as a result.

    I would argue that they overbought subway cars in the past few years, but that might have been a smart move given the soaring cost of construction here, since the cars were partially built in places like Brazil.

  • Was the link to Kaid Benfield’s blog meant to be a parody?

    Kaid complains walking 1/2 mile to the subway is too far. He complains he can’t always find a seat on the subway. He complains that escalators are out of service for routine maintenance. He complains Metro cars are not always as clean as they should be.

    My goodness, life must be horrible for poor Kaid!

    Even though he works for a well-known environmental advocacy group, he drives to work. That he can afford $20 per day for the parking suggests NRDC is paying its staff way too much.

    So Alon is absolutely correct. Kaid’s problems with metro is nothing more than regular wear ‘n tear.

  • Michael Renner

    As an occasional visitor to Washington, DC for the past 30 years or so, I have to agree with Drunk Engineer’s comment about Kaid Benfield’s complaints. Sure, there are times when Metrorail is less than one might wish for (and Kaid is right to point to the fatal accident last summer), but the alternative is driving?? Perhaps the environmental elite just can’t be bothered too much by life’s little challenges.

  • Joan Mooney

    I have to come to Kaid Benfield’s defense. I have lived in DC since before the Metro rail system was built, and the inability of the jurisdictions that fund it – DC, Maryland, and Virginia – to agree to give it the money it needs for adequate updates is deplorable. I will do almost anything to avoid driving, but the current state of the system – overcrowding, insufficient air conditioning on 100 degree days, broken escalators that can be a very long walk even for a healthy person in the heat of summer, and long intervals between trains at off-peak times – makes it increasingly unpleasant to take Metro. In rush hour, cars are sometimes so crowded that a commuter may have to wait for two or more trains to pass before finding one that has enough room for another passenger. It’s a shame because Metro started out as a clean and efficient system.

  • My post about Metro’s state of disrepair has provoked some strong retorts. My real point is that many US transit systems, including Metro, are being neglected. As a matter of public policy, we need to put much more in the way of commitment and resources into these systems so that they are safe, easily accessed, comfortable and reliable. Metro is doing the best they can with a poor structural support system and far too little money.

    I’m hardly the only one to point out that the escalator outages in a system highly dependent on long escalators has become a serious issue. (And, no, I’m not talking about the ‘routine’ repairs.) It’s been front-page news in the Post for a reason. Overcrowding has become a significant issue, too. Let’s make it better.

    For those of you who enjoy making this personal about me, I walk a lot and still take Metro for a fair amount of my trips. I drive about 4000 miles per year, about two-fifths as much as the average American (including children and other nondrivers) and somewhere around a fifth to a fourth as much as the average American who drives. I can live with that.

  • By Houston’s standards, American transit systems are underfunded. By all other standards, they’re not. The Washington Metro is currently building a mostly-elevated extension deep into the suburbs, for a per-mile cost that’s marginally lower than that of fully underground extensions in Continental Europe. Its operating costs per vehicle revenue-hour are the highest in the six major transit cities in the US, higher than even gold-plated BART.

    Crowding is normal on transit systems that work well. The economics of rapid transit is such that guaranteeing everyone a seat is stupid. If, again, you go by higher standards than those of the US Sunbelt, you’ll see that Metro isn’t that crowded. New York has a bunch of lines that see more crowding than Metro ever will – and by the standards of, say, Tokyo, New York isn’t especially crowded, either.

  • Michael Renner

    I totally agree with Kaid’s point about the need for much, much greater commitment and resources for transit (and for intercity passenger rail, for that matter). Current and proposed budgets in the United States are a joke. This is true in comparison to how much gets spent in the U.S. on highways and airports. It’s even more true in comparison with what other countries in Europe, Asia, but also parts of Latin America spend on their public transportation systems.

    But Kaid: You complain that a couple of posts, including mine, have made this personal. The reference, however, was your own blog entry which told a personal story. Perhaps the language used in the posts concerned was a bit too tough.

    At any rate, it’s not about you, it’s about all of us. We all need to examine our daily choices (and I can’t claim that I always make the best choice). It’s also clear that this is a matter that needs to rise above merely personal choices. You or I may want to ride Metro or some other form of public transportation, but if a system is poorly maintained, offers poor coverage or connectivity or, worse — doesn’t exist– then where’s the choice?

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