Home Public Transit Policy Still waiting for action from the feds

Still waiting for action from the feds

by Benjamin Kabak

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?

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Alex C June 14, 2011 - 2:19 am

People won’t do anything and won’t care until we’re in the 80s again and our transit networks go back to crumbling. And with an entire political party hell bent on dismantling government, privatizing everything and slashing government revenues, this issue won’t be solved any time soon. If bridge collapses haven’t jump-started any action, nothing will. Most people don’t care, and a lot of people in Congress have it in their interests for a failure, so they can hand operations over to the people funding their campaigns.

pete June 14, 2011 - 9:28 am

No amount of federal funding, unless its 100% will “save” any public transit agency. You all forget that LOCAL taxpayers and LOCAL governments pay for public transit service to run. Its not the responsibility of the feds, legally and socially to run short range public transit/non-“interstate”. If the feds increase their funding for a particular public transit district, next year the local legislature will cut funding even more and the public transit agency will claim poverty once again in a never ending cycle.

Marc Shepherd June 14, 2011 - 11:33 am

I am more interested in local/state funding than federal. Why should taxpayers in Wyoming fund my ride to work?

An argument for federal funds is more compelling for inter-state transit. But in the current budget climate, even that is a tough sell.

Adirondacker12800 June 14, 2011 - 3:01 pm

Why should people in New York fund highways in Wyoming?
If the Red States want to play “Why should we pay for …. ” the Blue States get to play it too. It’s a game the Red States don’t want to play.

pete June 14, 2011 - 4:07 pm

Interstate commerce. Trucks go 100s of miles through many states. City buses are lucky to get out of their county. The railroads in the USA almost became permanently nationalized in the USA (Conrail) because the national economy would be in trouble if Penn Central liquidated all of its ROWs to subdivision developers. BNSF, UP, NS, and CSX have no interest being govt owned subsidized systems.

If you take the federation retoric too far, you’ll wind up with a Customs inspection station on the GWB and Tappan Zee.

Marc Shepherd June 14, 2011 - 4:14 pm

Exactly. You can at least make an argument that interstate highways are used in interstate commerce. It is hard to make that argument for a subway system used almost exclusively for local transit within one city.

Alon Levy June 14, 2011 - 6:46 pm

Interstate commerce can go on UP and BNSF; no need for superhighways through Wyoming. The argument about interstate commerce is just a surreptitious way of saying, “People in rural areas deserve government subsidies more than urbanites.”

Justin June 15, 2011 - 3:21 am

People in NYC do indeed benefit from the national highway system. Everything is trucked in, and there isn’t even a direct NJ/NYC freight train link (with the exception of the Staten Island/NJ freight route). So something can be trucked from the West Coast to the East Coast, or from North to South. So yes, the federal government prioritizes highway, airport (many goods are shipped by airplane) and seaports. Some items are shipped by freight train, yes.

In terms of local funding of mass transit in NYC, an argument could be made that too many resources are going to various social services programs. Perhaps if this were reduced, more money could go to transit.

Alon Levy June 15, 2011 - 2:23 pm

Things are trucked in over the bridges from Jersey, but transcontinental freight goes primarily by rail. Rail and trucks carry about the same number of ton-km of freight in the US, with rail having the lion’s share of long-distance traffic. So let me ask again: what does New York City get from the Interstates?

Bolwerk June 15, 2011 - 12:42 am

Somehow I suspect that’s not a problem. You can argue the feds shouldn’t take so much, but since they are they should distribute it more equitably.

Hank June 14, 2011 - 9:31 am

Is there a way to convince people that transit, like roads, is a public good that benefits ALL of us? I do not own a car, yet understand how I benefit from the interstate highway system, so I pay my taxes for it.

I know educating the American voter is impossible, but is there a way to at least appeal to his preconceived notions?

pete June 14, 2011 - 10:57 am

Argue that you can text and travel legally on public transit, you can’t in a car. lol

Alex C June 14, 2011 - 1:40 pm

But public transit is for poor people! Eewww! /average schmuck

pete June 14, 2011 - 4:11 pm

Its really only for illegals and disabled without a license. Cars and mass transit are the same price (low $1000s) per year. How do the no running water rural poor in Kentucky and Mississippi afford cars?

pete June 14, 2011 - 4:12 pm

But people think public transit is only for the poor.

Brandi June 14, 2011 - 1:39 pm


Sadly though I don’t hear anyone doing anything to maintain transit systems or continue to build them. Albany has been the most hushed of them all. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.


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