Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist
Nation's transit systems in peril
Most of America's top 10 transit regions are seriously in arrears in vital maintenance and upgrading, writes Neal Peirce. That's dangerous because today's congested roadways have made transit indispensable to people's movements and the regions' economies.
Why should we spring for the multibillions of hard-to-find dollars that the experts say are necessary to patch up America's essential — but often deteriorating — public transportation systems?
It's straightforward, argues the New York-based Regional Plan Association (RPA). Transportation, it asserts, isn't just a question of patching a few potholes or cleaning dirty subway cars. It's a matter of the national future — whether our economy hums or shrinks, carrying our standard of living down with it.
Illustrating its point, RPA cites the case of America's top 10 transit regions, among them New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and Seattle. Collectively, the 10 regions represent a third of America's economic output and a quarter of our population. And they're projected to grow 26 percent — 90 million people — in the next 30 years.
But most of them are seriously in arrears in vital transit system maintenance and upgrading. That's dangerous because today's congested roadways have made transit indispensable to people's movements and the regions' economies.
And that's not just true for New York, long America's transit leader, which went through a "near-death experience" in its fiscal crisis of the 1970s. It later recouped with massive transit investments, yet now lacks a transit capital program for the next three years.
In Chicago, where the transit system provides more than a half billion rides a year, funding is so thin that about 40 percent of the stations and 68 percent of its railcars are technically past their useful life. In Boston, just paying off the debt service on bonds equals all fare revenues. Atlanta's MARTA system will see its backlog of essential system upgrading rise from $1.3 billion to $3 billion if the region fails to pass a transportation referendum in autumn 2012.
Overall, RPA board chair Elliott "Lee" Sander told a Washington Post Live conference on transportation this month, the transit backlog of the top cities is about $50 billion — with only $5.4 billion a year being spent to deal with it.
Let the transit systems slip too far, the RPA warns, and future development will be diverted to outer-ring suburbs accessible only by highways, adding to congestion and energy consumption" — a "failure profound for the United States in terms of global competitiveness, job growth, livability, equity and climate change."
The cause of U.S. transit systems both large and small has long been championed by the American Public Transit Association, which reports that despite last year's nationwide transit increase of 85.7 million rides, to 5.2 billion, about 80 percent of systems were forced to raise fares or cut service.
Today's tea party-impacted Republican majority in the U.S. House shows little sympathy. Recently the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee proposed a 37 percent cut in federal transit assistance. Should it pass, notes APTA President William Millar, lack of job access will have a "chilling effect" on economic recovery.
But now RPA plans a first-ever "regions-up" campaign to work with transit officials, business and civic leaders in the 10 lead transit regions to promote robust local funding strategies for their systems. Beyond that, it plans to lobby opinion leaders and the states' members of Congress to note the dangers in reduced major transit system service.
The stakes are nothing less, RPA President Robert Yaro insists, than reversing the disinvestment in the top regions that are so deeply dependent on transit: "These regions are the centers of the nation's entrepreneurship, economy and science. Letting them fail through mobility failure would take a big chunk of the nation's economy down with them. We can't let it happen."
And there are real fears. "We're in danger of a slow agonizing slip to the bottom," Richard Sarles, CEO/general manager of the regional agency that runs the Washington region's Metro system, told the Post Live conference. "We have a $6 billion commitment" for improvement from the local governments, he said, "but without federal help that's just Band-Aid repairs" — especially in a region expecting an added 1.5 million people in the next 30 years.
But waiting for today's Congress to react creatively may be like waiting for Godot. And it's not just the tea party: Note, for example, bipartisan political cowardice to raise the gas tax (even while gyrations in global oil prices dwarf any likely increase anyway).
But there is wealth in the regions. If Congress is stalemated, regions need to gin up their own constituencies to pay more. Los Angeles, with its 2008 vote to fund 13 transit and 15 highway capital projects, set a model. Landmark state bond measures in New York and Illinois have helped. Georgia broke with a history of anti-urbanism to allow next year's Atlanta transit sales tax vote.
Bottom line: A fresh tide's flowing. With luck, the RPA national campaign will add new momentum.
Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org