FTA Chief: Paint Is Cheaper Than Trains

In March, Cato published my review of every rail transit system in America (as of 2008), showing that in nearly every case buses would have been more cost-effective at moving people. This same view was expressed last week by a surprising source: Peter Rogoff, the Obama administration’s appointee in charge of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

Appropriately, Rogoff spoke before the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, whose transit system, he pointed out, is in a “grim” state. Nationwide, he noted, America’s transit industry suffers from $78 billion worth of deferred maintenance – most of which is due to rail transit lines that cities cannot afford to keep in shape. Rogoff was disturbed that cities were asking for federal grants to build more rail lines when they can’t keep the existing trains in a state of good repair.

Rogoff says he has been telling transit managers, “if you can’t afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?” Cities that build “shiny new rails now … need to be mindful of the costs they are teeing up for future generations.”

“Let’s start with honesty,” he said: “Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive.” He suggested that, instead of expensive trains, many cities can attract just as many riders onto transit by painting buses on specific routes in distinctive colors (as Boulder, CO has done).

Part of the problem, Rogoff knows, is that Congress has given cities incentives to build high-cost transit projects. To address this issue, the last transportation bill, in 2005, included a section requiring the Federal Transit Administration to evaluate the incentives created by federal funding.

Unfortunately, the FTA dropped the ball: the resulting report said nothing about existing incentives and addressed only the question of whether new incentives could be created to encourage agencies to bring their properties up to a state of good repair. While that is a laudable goal, it is an input, not an output.

According to historic data published by the American Public Transportation Association, the productivity of public transit – outputs per unit of input – has declined dramatically since the federal government began funding transit in 1964. From 1964 through 2008, the inflation-adjusted cost of operating transit increased by more than 360 percent, while transit ridership grew by a mere 24 percent and fares by 62 percent.

Ultimately, transit should be privatized, but in the meantime Congress or the administration can adopt a race-to-the-top program similar to the one the administration is using to improve education. Rogoff should direct his agency to rewrite its incentive report before Congress takes up transportation again in 2011.