Transit in Turmoil

Last week’s resignation of Michael Melaniphy as CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is a sign that more people are seeing that America’s transit-industrial complex has no clothes. Melaniphy’s departure comes on the heels of the withdrawal of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) from APTA membership.

MTA’s complaint is that APTA has failed to help the seven “legacy” transit systems, that is, rail systems that are more than 40 years old, that are suffering from severe maintenance backlogs. These transit systems, which are in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, carry nearly two-third of the nation’s transit riders yet–thanks in part to APTA lobbying–a disproportionate share of federal transit dollars go to smaller cities that are building new rail systems that they won’t be able to afford to maintain.

In 2010, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that the legacy rail systems (plus Washington and Atlanta) needed nearly $60 billion to restore them to a state of good repair. Yet little was done, and the latest estimate is that the maintenance backlog has grown to more than $93 billion. Meanwhile, with APTA’s encouragement, Congress has spent something like $15 billion supporting the construction of new rail systems in places like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland.

Even the transit systems that suffer from maintenance backlogs are spending precious resources building new rail lines because that is what Congress will fund, not maintenance. Thus, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is spending $3 billion on a light-rail line to Medford even as it let its maintenance backlog grow to $7.3 billion. The Chicago Transit Authority is spending $2.3 billion extending its Red Line even as its maintenance backlog exceeds $22 billion. The San Francisco BART system is suffering frequent breakdowns and has a $9.7 billion maintenance backlog, yet is spending $6.3 billion on a line to San Jose that partly duplicates existing commuter rail service.

Meanwhile, other cities seem to be racing to see who can spend the most on their own rail transit expansions. Having just finished spending $1.5 billion on a seven-mile light-rail line, Portland wants to spend $2 billion on a new 12-mile line. Seattle just spend $1.9 billion on a three-mile light-rail line and is now spending $3.7 billion on a fourteen-mile line to Bellevue. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants to spend $120 billion on new transit lines, including the construction of a nine-mile light-rail tunnel to the San Fernando Valley that will cost nearly $1 billion per mile. 

Despite their expense, none of these light-rail lines are anything like the Washington or other subway systems. The “light” in light rail refers to capacity, not weight: light rail is, by definition, low-capacity transit, capable of carrying only about a quarter as many people per hour as a subway or elevated line. In 1981, San Diego opened the nation’s first modern light-rail line at a cost of $5.6 million per mile (about $12.5 million in today’s money); the cost of the average line being built today is $163 million per mile, yet those new lines won’t be able to carry any more people than the San Diego line.

These new rail lines do little good for transit riders, mainly because their high cost eventually forces most transit agencies that build them to cannibalize their bus systems. For example, construction of new light-rail lines forced San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority to reduce bus service by 22 percent since 2001, leading to a 32 percent decline in ridership

It’s no surprise that APTA sheepishly reported last month that the nation’s overall transit ridership declined in 2015. While APTA blamed the decline on low gas prices, the truth is (as noted here last year), if you don’t count the New York subway system (whose ridership has been growing in response to rising Manhattan employment), nationwide ridership has declined for the past several years. 

Why are we spending so much money building new rail lines when it doesn’t help, and often hurts, transit riders? Part of the answer is Congress likes shiny new projects more than maintenance. But part of the answer is that APTA’s membership is stacked with manufacturers and suppliersconsultantscontractors, and land developers who build subsidized projects next to rail stations. Although New York’s MTA carries nearly 37 percent of all transit riders in the country, its membership dues covered less than 2 percent of APTA’s budget because APTA gets most of its money from non-transit agencies. Thus, like Congress, APTA is biased towards new construction.

For example, APTA claims to be an educational organization, yet it hasn’t done much to educate Congress or the public about the long-term costs of rail transit and the need to almost completely and expensively rebuild those rail lines every 30 years or so. After all, this message could undermine support for building new rail transit lines in cities that don’t need them.

People who support the needs of actual transit riders, rather than rail snobs (people who say they’ll ride a train but not a bus) or contractors, should use these facts to persuade Congress to stop funding obsolete rail transit systems when cities desperately need things that will truly relieve traffic congestion and cost-effectively improve everyone’s mobility.