Why the Senate Transportation Bill Will Devastate Transit

Transit officials lined up today to make clear that holding transit spending at current levels — as the Senate’s transportation authorization bill does — will put transit systems at risk of falling further into dangerous disrepair.

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are "woefully insufficient."
Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are “woefully insufficient.”

The backlog for transit maintenance and replacement stands “conservatively” at $86 billion, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That backlog is expected to keep growing at a rate of $2.5 billion each year without a significant infusion of funds.

To put it another way, the country needs to spend $2.5 billion more per year — from federal, state and local sources — just to keep the state of the nation’s transit systems from getting even worse.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was determined to expose the shortcomings of the bill Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently shepherded through the Environment and Public Works Committee. While the bill’s transit title hasn’t been written yet, EPW has been clear about its intentions to keep spending at current levels plus inflation. That means no help toward the $2.5 billion boost needed to keep things from getting worse.

Menendez chaired a hearing today of the Banking Committee — the very committee tasked with writing the transit title within the framework established by EPW — to demonstrate the problem with the bill’s funding levels.

“By a simple yes or no,” Menendez asked the transit officials before him, “does anyone on the panel believe that current funding levels are enough to help you achieve a state of good repair?”

“They are insufficient,” answered Joseph Casey, general manager of Philadelphia’s SEPTA.

“Woefully insufficient,” added Beverly Scott, head of Boston’s MBTA and a nationally respected transportation visionary.

“No sir,” said Gary Thomas of Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

“And if federal funding remains flat, does anyone believe that additional state and local funding alone could cover the cost of starting to dig down the backlog?” Menendez then asked.

The answer to that was also a resounding no, although the officials made it clear that recent state action — notably the Pennsylvania transportation bill and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s reforms — got them partway there.

“We appreciate and we respect at the local level that we need to step up and do our part as well,” Scott said. “But we are definitely in great need of continued support by the federal government.”

Menendez put the question to the FTA’s Dorval Carter, too: “If federal funding remains flat in the coming years, do you believe we can make any progress toward eliminating the $86 billion backlog?”

“No sir, I do not,” Carter responded.

Indeed, flat funding does not mean a flat backlog. It means an accumulating backlog.

Carter said the biggest challenge is the nation’s rail systems, which account for about 63 percent of the state of good repair backlog.

“These deficiencies have a direct impact on riders,” he said. “They undermine the resiliency of our transit systems and they drain resources that could be better spent on timely replacement and expansion.”

“The older a system gets, the more challenging the simplest of tasks become,” Carter said. “For instance: Where do you find parts for 100-year-old equipment? No one makes them anymore; you can’t get them off the shelf. Your options are to either cannibalize existing assets or to make the parts yourself.” Carter said that when he worked at the Chicago Transit Authority, he had seen them resort to both measures.

When track deteriorates, agencies often implement “slow orders.” If you’ve ever been on a train that inexplicably slows to a crawl at a certain turn or bridge or tunnel, you know how it impacts your travel time when an agency orders trains to slow down in certain segments. Sometimes agencies impose weight limits. And sometimes they need to shut down segments altogether.

Casey of SEPTA and Scott of the T represent old systems with desperately aging infrastructure. Boston’s subway opened in 1897, making it the oldest transit system in the country, “which still operates today at crushloads.” The region’s commuter rail system was originally laid out in the 1830s. “Some of the MBTA bus facilities date to the early 20th century,” Scott testified, “having been initially designed to serve horse-drawn omnibuses.”

Like Boston, Philadelphia has a state-of-good-repair backlog of about $5 billion. Out of 103 bridges that have hit their 100th birthday, SEPTA can only address 18 in the next five years, Casey said. SEPTA has seen 50 percent ridership growth over the past 15 years on its regional rail system, and Casey said there’s great potential for significantly more growth — if he were able to invest more in capacity.

The current transportation bill has a mixed record on transit maintenance. MAP-21 created a new state of good repair grant program and increased maintenance funding for rail. And Carter praised the transit asset management requirements that were part of MAP-21, saying they would help agencies “get a more accurate picture of true need, enabling local decision-makers to allocate resources more effectively system-wide.”

But discretionary grants for buses and bus facilities became a formula program, and according to Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the result has been that smaller transit districts are “buying fewer — therefore not getting group bus discounts — and they’re keeping inefficient buses that needs high levels of maintenance on routes for longer, at the detriment of the agency.”

Scott would like to see the next bill focus more on performance so that the funding system is “not rewarding bad behavior.” But what keeps her up at night, she said, is workforce development. Too many of her specialized staff are nearing retirement. And in general, she said, Congress just needs to “get out of that old thinking.”

“All this siloing: ‘This is a road dollar, this is a transit dollar, this is a ped dollar,’” she said. “We’re all talking about mobility and access. We’re all so integrated and inter-connected.”

Casey said what he’d like to see out of the next bill is just a funding solution. “The pot just has to grow.”

21 thoughts on Why the Senate Transportation Bill Will Devastate Transit

  1. Great to see the spotlight on Dr. Scott’s concern about workforce development and the looming challenge with replacing and aging workforce. Brookings analysis shows that due to retirements and other employment shifts, 57 infrastructure occupations are projected to exceed the national replacement rate. This means that these occupations will need to replace more than 23.4 percent of their workforce during the next decade.


  2. We will all be much better off if Congress stops funding all highways, bridges, and, yes, transit, and leaves it up to the States. The money should be handed back to the people in the form of lower taxes, and individual States can raise their taxes to compensate as they see fit. Why on earth is the MBTA’s budget being debated in front of the entire country? It makes no sense!?!

  3. We need not make our stations this audacious, but maybe if our systems looked half as nice, it’d be easier to convince politicians and the riding public to keep it that way…

  4. Europe, even rather corrupt/authoritarian parts like Italy, is more small-D democratic than the USA.

  5. Why is there no one riding that metro? Is it totally brand-new? In which case why are you comparing a brand new station to the systems in need of significant repairs over a century since their construction? I’m confused…

  6. Don’t forget federal funding for air travel and air traffic controllers!

    Of course, in your hypothetical, if a state’s electorate chooses to keep their taxes and not fund or only minimally fund their own infrastructure, it would make for a very interesting situation (interstate highways downgraded to state routes in some, but not all, areas; airport closures; etc.).

  7. Exactly! There is no compelling reason anymore for the Feds to be involved in transportation funding, better to place that burden on to the states.

  8. I wonder how much a dollar of tax is whittled down as it passes from our hands to the federal bureaucrats who collect it then distribute after reviewing requests from local and state bureaucrats who apply for it, then administer the transfer and monitor how it is spent by the actual planner or engineer, who then transfers it over to a contractor to actually build something. It wouldn’t surprise me if that dollar turned into 5 cents of project after all is said and done. I say keep more of it local.

  9. My point is that even economically-distressed parts of Europe are capable of building “great things,” but in the USA, we can’t even afford to maintain what we have, let alone build something beautiful and spiritually uplifting.

  10. Why the states? Should taxpayers in Schenectady see their rates go up so that commuters from Greenwich, CT can pay even less of the cost of their train rides into Manhattan? Besides, people in Salem or Olympia or Springfield generally have much less sympathy for people in Portland or Seattle or Chicago than people in Washington do.

  11. The main reason isn’t that we’re not willing to pay. It’s that infrastructure projects cost so much more in the US than they do almost anywhere else. The Second Avenue Subway is costing $3 billion per km. If metro lines cost that much to build in Europe, you wouldn’t see too many of them outside of London and Paris.

  12. Kenny — I’m not a Naples partisan (it was just an example of a pretty poor city doing great things in public transit), but the truth is that any street corner in Greenwich Village, the East Village or Times Square will have a disgusting overflowing garbage can on any given weekend day in NYC. And this isn’t because of a “crisis” in NYC — it’s just normal for NYC. Americans need to wake up to the fact that our urban — and public — spaces are a mess compared to those in many, many other countries, including those that many Americans regularly deride as poorer and more corrupt than our own country.

  13. Exactly. The Interstate mandate is completed and mission creep on part of the feds has led to this ridiculous situation, where local transportation decisions are selected based on whether they fit in with a federal guideline.

    If NYS choses to spend 75% of transportation money on transit, it would be because 75% of the population would stand to benefit – I’m sure we can swap the federal gas tax for a similar state tax (payroll/income/sales)

  14. It’s not particularly good policy to follow what economically distressed European countries are doing. Look at Spain, where there frenzy-induced spending on HSR and metro systems has resulted in decimation of the conventional intercity network, which serves a far greater extent of the population.

  15. Decimation is a pretty big exaggeration. High-speed service is also much cheaper in Europe than the USA (imagine an Acela train with an actual “tourist” or “economy” class, but it actually travels at 200 mph). Some of the slow-speed trips have been switched to high-speed rail.

  16. Naples? In terms of new transit construction, we don’t even compete with Minsk. I mean that literally: just google “Minsk metro.”

  17. Expert witness: “Flat funding would further cripple the country’s rail network and make transit slower, less reliable, less efficient, more expensive, and increasingly impractical for people who need it.”

    Republican senator (or too often, Democratic senator): “You say that like it was a bad thing.”

  18. I see the logic in what you’re saying, but that would be the end of transit in much of the country. Here in Illinois, for example, the state is in a financial hole because of decades of mismanagement and corruption; and if Springfield got its hands on the money now going to federal transportation funds, most of it would go to plugging budget holes. Any left for transportation would go to advancing suburban sprawl and to boondoggles like the Illiana Expressway and the Peotone airport.

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