The Future of Transit?

06.09.2010 | HMMH |

by Lance Meister

I attended a one-day conference  here in Boston on the future of transit a couple of weeks ago.  There was a lot of discussion focused on transit funding, both for the current systems and the future.  There was a lot of sobering information, some bright spots, some interesting tidbits, and one very depressing speech from the head of the US Federal Transit Administration (FTA). 

The sobering information is this:  The seven largest rail transit agencies in the US have a combined $50 billion backlog of maintenance to get to a state of good repair.  Unfortunately, a state of good repair is defined as 2.5 on a scale of 1 (worst) to 5 (best) for maintenance.  Basically a C.  A soon to be released study says that there is a total of $78 billion for all transit agencies around the country.  That’s a lot of deferred maintenance. 

The basic problem is that we are drastically underfunding our public transit and transportation systems.  These are vital pieces of our lives and country, and we treat them like the ugly stepchild.  Here’s one of the interesting tidbits to mull over a bit.  Doug Foy, who has been a key player in the transportation field in Massachusetts for many years, brought up some very interesting statistics.  I’ll paraphrase him as best I can, but this is his analysis and information. 

Think about your cell phone.  How much do you pay to use your cell phone and support the network each year?  $1,000 seems like a reasonable number for many people.  What about electricity?  Or water?  How about your cable TV and internet?  Each of those is probably around $1,000 or more each per year.  Now think about how much you pay to use the transportation system (transit and roads), which is basically supported by the gas tax.  The average person who drives pays about $300 per year.  That’s less than a third of what you spend each year to support and maintain other vital networks and systems you rely on each year.

There’s a huge funding gap for such a vital network, and much of the conference was focused on thinking about ways to address that.  One of the bright spots is that transit is in demand.  People really want to use it.  The trouble is mobilizing the people who care about it, and making it a priority.  Unfortunately, we’re a country that responds really well to a crisis, but long term planning and maintenance is a challenge. 

Transit isn’t sexy.  It isn’t exciting.  It’s hard to communicate its importance to the average person.  It’s also hard to communicate just what it costs to run a transit system.  If the average fare to take a bus or train is $2, the actual cost is between $7 and $9.  That’s a big gap that’s made up through taxes.   We’re not paying what it really costs, and we’re unwilling to fund the system.  Right now, transit systems across the country are cutting back service.  One of my favorite moments during the day was the description of what the people at MARTA (Atlanta’s transit system) did when facing cutbacks.  They went out and painted a big red X on each bus that would be eliminated.  When people saw this, they were mobilized, and the legislature managed to find some money to keep the buses running.

For those of you who live in Boston, think back just a few weeks to the MWRA water crisis.  How often do you think about water?  If you’re like me, not very often.  Probably not until you can’t use it.  The same is true for transit.  Imagine the chaos in Boston if the MBTA shut down.  You may think “I don’t use it anyway, I drive a car and I’ll be fine.”  Sorry to burst that bubble.  Over 50% of all workers in Boston use the T.  There would be mass gridlock without the T.  All those people would have to find another way to get to work.  It’s a vital part of our city, even if you rarely use it.

Now on to the speech by Peter Rogoff, the head of the FTA and the reason why there’s a question mark in the title of the post.  Mr. Rogoff spoke toward the end of the day, and I was really hoping for a rousing speech.  Something to inspire the troops, point to a bold plan from our administration, a great “The Future of Transit” moment.  Instead, what we were treated to was really quite depressing, and truly disappointing.  

I won’t go into detail on the speech.  You can read it if you want.  However, the tone was very distressing.  He basically said we should hunker down, fix what we have, and not expand transit at all.  Oh, and if we do, paint a bus a different color, call it a special bus, paint a line on a road and call it a special lane, and now you have transit.  That’s transit?  As anyone who has taken the Silver Line in Boston knows, a car can instantly defeat that mode of transit.  Also, with the big push into transit-oriented development, who is going to buy a house or open a business next to a line on a road that could be gone tomorrow?

We should be looking at transit as an investment in our future.  It should be a way to meet our greenhouse gas requirements, lead the move to sustainability, and provide mobility, jobs and opportunities.  That’s why I, and many others, work in this field.  I know that my part is very small, but I feel like I’m working toward something that matters and actually helps people.  As silly as that sounds, it actually matters to me, and makes me feel like I contribute something valuable.  Mr. Rogoff’s speech was so disheartening to me that I thought about becoming a hedge-fund manager.  At least that way, while I flail about in a semi-pointless job, at least I’d make some money.

Hopefully that isn’t the future of transit.  I’m still optimistic that we can recognize the value of transit and begin to invest in it at a sustainable level.  While everyone may not see it, or want to acknowledge it, I think the era of the car is starting it’s early stages of ending, and we need to be prepared to meet the needs of transportation in the future.