Transit Repair Backlog Will Get Renewed Focus

  • January 17, 2013
  • By Daniel Vock
Chicago-area transit systems, including the “L” pictured above, are struggling to keep up with a growing list of improvements needed to maintain their buses and trains in good working order. (AP)

Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University, has studied the Chicago area's network of public transportation for years. Right now, ridership on the region's buses and rails is at a 20-year high. But Schwieterman worries about deteriorating conditions.

The biggest problems come along the 735 miles of rail routes in and around Chicago, which has the nation's second-largest transit system. Rail lines in the city—including the iconic L tracks and the commuter routes that bring hundreds of thousands of workers downtown—are mainly above ground, on elevated tracks.

“Those have mostly only gotten patchwork repairs over the years,” Schwieterman says. “It's reached a critical point where wholesale replacement is needed. Some of these are just crumbling. You could walk up with a wrench and just bang off concrete. They're that brittle. They're not unsafe, per se, but they could become unsafe at any point.”

The situation is getting worse. The backlog of capital projects needed by Chicago-area transit agencies grew by 20 percent in just the last two years, Schwieterman estimates. The federal stimulus package that helped transit agencies upgrade their infrastructure is gone, and most of the money from Illinois state government's two-year-old capital improvement bill is out the door. There is nothing to replace that money. “The future,” Schwieterman says, “looks really scary.”

In recent years, as the national economy has stalled but ridership has soared, funding for transit from federal, state and local sources has remained level. “That's a formula for falling behind, not a formula for getting ahead,” says Art Guzzetti, the vice president for policy at the American Public Transportation Association.

Funding State Safety Organizations

The new federal surface transportation law beefs up the requirements for state oversight of bus and rail transit. Under the law, the state safety organizations assume responsibility for enforcing federal transit safety policies.

But Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff says almost all state safety organizations are ill-prepared for the role. Their average staff size, he says, is less than one full-time employee. “The good news,” Rogoff adds, “is we now have new federal resources to go forward to strengthen them.”

The federal government will shoulder 80 percent of the cost of the oversight agencies, but states need to provide the other 20 percent. Rogoff and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have asked governors to include the 20 percent state share in their budget proposals.

“We really need the governors to be poised to come forward with that match so we can strengthen those agencies quickly,” Rogoff says.

— Daniel C. Vock

The condition of transit systems across the country will soon draw more attention, however, because a new federal law requires state and local agencies to detail the condition of their trains, buses, tracks and equipment, and take steps to upgrade them. Federal regulators will play a bigger oversight role and, for the first time, will have jurisdiction over safety issues. That could put pressure on state lawmakers to address their share of what at last count was a $78 billion national backlog of transit repairs and improvements.

Two years ago, the Federal Transit Administration said that roughly $18 billion in new funds would be needed every year for the next two decades to ensure that all transit assets are in good repair. More than half of the backlog is for heavy rail, in systems like Chicago's CTA, the New York subway or San Francisco's BART.

Peter Rogoff, the federal transit administrator, says maintaining transit equipment in good shape keeps trains running on time and makes people want to take those trains. The Federal Transit Agency spends $2 billion a year to help expand newer transit systems in places such as Denver, Salt Lake City and Charlotte. But Rogoff says all those ridership gains could be erased if riders in areas with older systems and longer upgrade lists, such as New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, decrease their usage by just 2 percent.

Rogoff touts the $2.1 billion grant program created by last year's federal transportation law that is dedicated to helping transit agencies keep their systems in a state of good repair. “We simultaneously have a requirement that all transit agencies submit their safety plan to us,” he says. “There is a natural melding there, in how to make sure their greatest safety vulnerabilities are gaining attention, not just with talk, but with some money.”

Reconsidering Funding

The greater detailing of transit agencies' needs could also spur states to reconsider their funding,  Rogoff adds. States vary greatly in their support of transit agencies. “When you consider the critical importance that these transit services provide for the overall fiscal health of the state,” he says, “there's a strong case to be made for increased state investment.”

But in Massachusetts, where ridership on the transit system is at the highest level since it opened in 1964, lawmakers have not yet found a plan to help the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority meet its basic needs day to day. Governor Deval Patrick's administration Monday outlined $3.8 billion in upgrades for the next decade that the state deemed most important to keep the buses and trains running smoothly. The governor proposed an increase in the state's income tax to boost funding for schools and transportation during his annual state of the state speech to lawmakers Wednesday night.

Chronic funding problems are also hampering upkeep efforts for Atlanta's transit agency. Last summer, area voters defeated a proposed 1-cent sales tax hike to pay for a bevy of transportation improvements. Several of those would have helped the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transportation Authority (MARTA) keep its system up to date. Those improvements will have to wait a little longer.

The recent recession hit MARTA especially hard because revenue from the sales tax that funds a large portion of the agency's budget plummeted. With a long list of needed repairs, the agency chose to upgrade its train control system and replace rails. But it put off projects such as fixing escalators, overhauling plumbing and electrical systems and replacing leaky roofs in train stations.

Construction vs. Repairs

In Illinois, Schwieterman says state lawmakers are only beginning to talk about another capital program. He says it could cost an additional $2 billion a year for the foreseeable future to bring Chicago area transit systems up to a state of good repair. But when lawmakers focus on transit, they tend to concentrate on new construction instead of upkeep. “We think it needs to be a steady commitment where the agencies can plan for some of this deterioration,” Schwieterman says, “and that's not the way capital bills tend to work.”

Still, Guzzetti, the APTA vice president, says the nation's transit agencies will find ways to keep their systems going even though the backlog of repairs is growing and funds are tight.

“We are a business of survivors. We find a way often, so I'm not going to say there's a doomsday coming or anything like that. No. These systems are too important to the community,” he says. “But the fact is we need to have a plan to deal with it.”