It’s clear from their words that officials within the Obama Administration are well aware of the funding crisis facing local transit authorities. Across the country, vital agencies are short billions of dollars for necessary maintenance, repairs and upgrades, and yet, dollars trickle out of Washington at a snail’s pace. It’s easier and more palatable for the government to spend billions bailing out the auto industry than it is for them to invest in transit operations.
If the Obama Administration has its way — a long shot for sure — that tied could turn. In comments yesterday at the American Public Transportation Association meeting, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said that he wants to see transit agencies stem their economic tide. “We are trying to deal with all those challenges at once,” he said. “Not just maintenance but also on expansion, also to provide increased formula funds.”
Rogoff spoke at length about the age of American transit networks and the need to modernize. “There are power substation facilities serving the SEPTA system that have equipment in it dating from the 19-teens and 20’s. Thank heaven they overbuilt those systems back in the 20’s because they actually have been able to endure and serve the service,” he said. “But it is, sometimes it is rather spooky when you see how many tens of thousands of daily commuters that are dependent on the continuing reliability of systems that are approaching 50, 60, 70 years-old in some of these cities. That’s why we really want to surge forward with the investment because some of those systems are going to have to be replaced you cannot keep milking them along another half century.”
Transportation Nation offers more from Rogoff’s press conference:
The tension between just fixing everything that’s broken — or about to break — and all the new transit that’s needed to really give Americans mobility options was fully on display at an APTA press conference at its annual rail conference Monday. Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff argued: “We want to provide the American public in the maximum number of communities with real transit choices, and give them the opportunity to keep more money in their wallet rather than hand it over at the gas pump, but in order to do that the transit service has to be available, it has to be safe and clean. It has to be reliable and desirable.”
…But before thinking about making transit a real option for most, if not all Americans, Rogoff said, there’s a $50 billion hole that needs filling. In the seven largest systems, which carry 80 percent of the rail transit passenger load in the U.S. – including New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington and Los Angeles — there is a $50 billion backlog of major maintenance needs. Rogoff said the FTA has proposed combing funding streams to “rifle shot” resources to where they are most needed.
“Reliable transit is really the difference between getting home in time to have dinner as a family, or not getting home in time to supervise homework, or not being able to pick your kid up on time from day care, all of these core quality of life issue, which are critical if we are going to entice more people on transit. But for for the millions of transit riders who do not have an automobile option these investments are critical to maintaining a viable transit system,” Rogoff said.
Now, this push to convince Congress to approve billions in transit assistance is one we’ve heard before. Senator Chuck Schumer has worked to wring dollars out of DC while Obama’s officials have spoken about it for years. The money, of course, never materializes. Despite Rogoff’s strident words, I can’t get my hopes up. We’ve seen no amount of leadership on federal assistance.
Meanwhile, on a local level, transit funding is under attack. A growing chorus of voices wants to remove $1.3 billion in the form of the payroll mobility tax from the MTA’s budget. The money to replace those lost funds won’t just materialize, and eventually, we’ll have a transit funding crisis — that is, if we don’t already. The time for talk is over. Where’s the action, from D.C., Albany or even City Hall?