More than two years ago we suggested in these pages that the era of multi-billion dollar system-building investments in urban rail transit is coming to an end. We wrote: "The 30-year effort to retrofit American cities with rail infrastructure, begun back in the Nixon Administration, appears to be just about over. The New Starts program is running out of cities that can afford or justify cost-effective rail transit investment. To be sure, federal capital assistance to transit will continue, but its function will shift to incrementally expanding existing rail networks and commuter rail services rather than embarking on construction of brand new rail systems." ("Urban Rail Transit and Freight Railroads: A Study in Contrast," February 18 2008).
Now comes a startling new revelation from a senior U.S. DOT official that even rail extensions may be at risk. Speaking at a National Summit on the Future of Transit before an audience of leading transit General Managers on May 18, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff questioned the wisdom of expanding rail networks when money is badly needed to maintain and modernize existing facilities:
"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? If you can't afford your current footprint, does expanding that underfunded footprint really advance the President's goal for cutting oil use and greenhouse gases... Or are we at risk of just helping communities dig a deeper hole for our children and our grandchildren?"
In Rogoff's judgment, the first priority for the transit industry is to follow the precept "fix it first." "Put down the glossy brochures, roll up our sleeves, and target our resources on repairing the system we have," he told the assembled transit officials. Transit systems that don't maintain their assets in a state of good repair risk losing riders, he warned. The Administrator cited the preliminary results of an FTA study of the financial needs of 690 public transit systems across America that show a $78 billion backlog of deferred maintenance. Fully 29 percent of all transit assets are "in poor or marginal condition." The challenge facing transit managers is to resist the siren call of new construction and devote money to the "unglamorous but absolutely vital work of repairing and improving our current systems."
At first blush Rogoff's position would appear to go counter to the Administration's announced policy of favoring public transit. Hasn’t Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood repeatedly championed public transit as an alternative to highway expansion? Hasn’t the Administration’s proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget include major commitments to funding new rail lines in Denver, Honolulu, Minneapolis and San Francisco? Hasn’t the Federal Transit Administration dropped the former emphasis on cost-effectiveness as an evaluation factor in rail project selection in favor of a broader range of factors? All true.
But fiscal realities can do wonders to bring federal officials down to earth. The Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund is barely solvent. The U.S. DOT budget will grow by only one percent in 2011. With commendable consistency and fairness, the Administration seems to have decided to apply the same investment standard to transit as it has preached and laid down for highways: Forget about massive capacity expansion; focus on getting the most out of the assets already in place by maintaining them in a state of good repair. To critics of the DOT's new posture – and there will be some – a good answer could be: It’s just a different way of looking at what it means to be pro-transit.