Connecting state and local government leaders
New federal funding from the infrastructure law will help. But some older systems have deep problems, underscored by track fires, breakdowns and delays.
The news about some of the country’s busiest transit systems can be pretty scary these days.
First, a subway train caught fire on a bridge outside of Boston in July. One passenger jumped into the river below, the rest evacuated by foot. Last weekend, an electric fire in a tunnel shut down Metro service on a key line near downtown Washington, D.C., for several days. And New York’s subway system continues to regularly suffer from breakdowns big and small, from flooded stations to track fires, mechanical issues and switch malfunctions.
For many of these transit systems—particularly the older ones—an influx of federal infrastructure money can’t come soon enough.
While the new money from Washington will certainly help, experts caution that many systems will still struggle with keeping their trains, tracks and stations in good shape.
“There are a handful of systems, which, put together, are massively behind in terms of [bringing things to a] state of good repair,” said Christof Spieler, the director of planning at Huitt-Zollars, a consulting firm, and the author of the book “Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US and Canadian Transit.” Those in the most need include subway systems built before World War II, like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.
On top of that, systems built out in the 1970s—like those in Atlanta, the San Francisco Bay area and Washington, D.C.—are now old enough that they, too, have to worry about keeping up or replacing really old equipment, Spieler added. “In many cases, those are agencies were not really thinking about that, and it kind of snuck up on them.”
“This is the kind of hole that you get into that is really hard to get out of, which is true both from a capital investment standpoint and an organizational standpoint,” he said. “Organizations that aren’t good at operations or aren’t good at safety or aren’t good at repairing things often hit these spirals where things just get worse, and funding does not immediately solve cultural issues.”
Catching Up With Decades of Work
The amount of work required for transit systems to bring their physical assets up to good condition is staggering.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2020 that catching up with all that work nationally would cost $176 billion, but would grow to $250 billion by 2029. (Of course, those numbers came out before Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last year.) Other, albeit older, estimates suggested that the price tag would be closer to $90 billion.
The infrastructure law championed by President Biden includes $108 billion over five years for public transit support. But that money includes support for current programs, funds to buy electric buses and resources to expand routes and services. Not all of it can be used to improve existing facilities.
The law means the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority will get about a 30% yearly increase in funds that are automatically distributed to transit agencies, said Michael Schipper, the agency’s deputy general manager for engineering and project management. In other words, it’s about another year and a half’s worth of money over the course of those five years.
It’s enough to get a few long-delayed projects off the drawing board and onto the construction schedule, Schipper told Route Fifty. That means everything from buying more buses, repairing more miles of track and improving train stations. But it also means upgrading its fare collection technology.
Some of those items, Schipper said, were things that “were nice to have but couldn’t quite get them into the budget [previously], but the bulk of what we added is just state of good repair upgrades to make our system more reliable.”
(The Cleveland transit system is also hoping to use the new federal money to pay for improvements, like adding a new bus rapid transit corridor, but those depend on winning competitive grants.)
Cleveland currently has a backlog of about $500 million in unmet needs, Schipper said, but it is hard to whittle that down.
“In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, our backlog has grown every year except maybe two times during the [Obama-era stimulus] program,” which included money for infrastructure projects, Schipper said.
While Cleveland operates an old rail system, three quarters of its passengers ride the bus instead. That makes it easier for Cleveland to keep up with maintenance than rail-dependent systems like the one in New York City, added Schipper, who is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ transportation policy committee.
Big Obstacles for Rail
Keeping rail systems in good condition can be a lot more difficult than maintaining a bus system, said Spieler, the planner, who is also a former board member of the Houston METRO transit agency.
Buses need to be replaced more regularly than trains. But, he explained, this means their features and parts are newer, and the designs are more standardized than custom-built railcars. Plus, Spieler noted, buses run on streets that are usually maintained by a different agency than the transit agency, while trains run on tracks owned—and maintained—by the transit agency itself.
The design of many rail systems also adds more challenges, Spieler said. Elaborate underground stations can drive up maintenance costs, especially if they include long escalators or elevators to bring passengers in and out of the system. The escalators in Washington, D.C.’s Metro system were originally exposed to the elements, adding to their maintenance issues, he noted.
“When you’re designing something, you are making lots of little and big decisions that will determine how easy it is to maintain,” he said.
But Spieler said some legacy systems have been able to tame the list of unmet needs. The light rail system in San Diego has a straightforward design, with trains running at grade level with few tunnels and simple stations, which makes it easier to maintain. He credited the Chicago Transit Authority for taking on major rehabilitation projects in recent years, even if it meant shutting down rail lines for months at a time to get the work done. Even New Jersey Transit, he said, has done a good job of slowly improving the physical assets it originally inherited from a bankrupt company
In the San Francisco area, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system has recently focused on improving its core functionality rather than pursuing politically popular expansions, Spieler noted. That followed a series of high-profile failures on the rail system. The agency pointedly reminded the public on Twitter in 2016: “BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.”
Since then, political leaders in the area have backed the agency’s shift in focus, which helped it regain its footing, Spieler said.
“This issue is as much political as it is technical,” Spieler said. “People tend to get a lot more excited about building new stuff than keeping the stuff we already have in good repair… We are not going to do better at this unless you have elected leadership and a larger political community saying it’s important.”
“If you wait until your trains are catching on fire and your bridges are falling down to prioritize it, it’s going to be really hard,” he said. “The point at which you have to actually need to make the political push to invest money here is a point at which things are still running just fine.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.