Reason #6 Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit
Transit Infrastructure Is Crumbling

Rather than maintain transit systems in a state of good repair, the transit industry has chosen to build more transit lines that it can’t afford to maintain. Transit riders respond to delays and dilapidated transit by finding other methods of travel.

The Department of Transportation’s latest assessment of the nation’s transit systems found an $89.8 billion maintenance backlog. Moreover, the backlog is growing by $1.6 billion a year, because rather than fix transit systems, transit agencies are building more.

To eliminate the backlog in 20 years, the report calculated, every single dollar now being spent on transit improvements must be transferred to maintenance and preservation. Alternatively, the industry must find at least $5.8 billion in new subsidies each year (see page Roman numeral L).

This backlog is definitely hurting transit ridership. American Public Transportation Association ridership reports reveal that 8 percent fewer people rode the Washington Metro rail system in the first half of 2016 than in the same period in 2015. This decline was largely due to people finding other alternatives because the subways have become so unreliable, not to mention unsafe. Although the agency began slowing trains to do trackwork late in the second quarter, the ridership decline began before that time.

Yet, aside from a few conferences during which mid-level agency officials pay lip service to achieving a state of good repair, the transit industry is ignoring this problem. Boston’s MBTA, for example, says that it has a $3 billion maintenance backlog and needs to spend $470 million a year just to keep it from growing, yet it is spending just $100 million a year on maintenance. Instead of restoring the system, it is spending well over $2 billion on a 4.3-mile extension of its light-rail line to Medford, Massachusetts.

Similarly, rather than contribute its fair share towards restoring the Washington Metro system, Maryland wants to spend more than $2 billion building the Purple Line light rail. Across the state line, Virginia is doing the same thing: building the Silver Line rather than assist in maintaining the existing system.

Similar problems can be found in Atlanta, Portland, San Francisco, and many other urban areas: rail transit systems declining, yet agencies are putting their resources into building new lines rather than repairing existing ones. Over the past decade, overall transit ridership has fallen in Atlanta, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, and other cities, and deteriorating infrastructure is one of the reasons.

Groups opposed to new highway construction used to have a mantra: “Fix it first.” Groups today that sincerely support public transit should apply that mantra to the transit industry if they want to avoid further ridership declines.

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10 thoughts on “Reason #6 Most Americans Don’t Ride Transit
Transit Infrastructure Is Crumbling

  1. Sandy Teal

    That is a great argument — fix it first. No one can seriously disagree with that other than those wanting to play the game of letting the infrastructure deteriorate until people die, then demanding huge subsidies to bring it up safe levels, all while not funding maintenance yet again.

  2. aloysius9999

    Seriously question whether the transit systems could ever dig the way out of the hole.

    Money is the easy part. Is there enough engineering, materials, labor, etc. etc. to make a real dent in the backlog let alone a serious reduction in the backlog?

    If memory serves, New Orleans was building 300 new houses a year when Katrina destroyed 3,000 houses. Without a big time increase in the building rate, replacing 3,000 houses doesn’t happen overnight. Same thing applies to transit system maintenance backlog. If you are doing $100 million worth of maintenance a year, reducing or eliminating $1 billon backlog takes time and serious resources both material and human in addition to the money. While you are fixing the bad so of the existing good will go bad.

  3. LazyReader

    The Chicago “L” is so badly falling apart the fact nothing has collapsed yet is nothing short of a miracle. https://assets3.thrillist.com/v1/image/1595986/size/tmg-article_default_mobile;jpeg_quality=20.jpg
    But yes, fix what’s broken first rather than build what’s gonna be really expensive, it’s like buying a second home before you’ve paid off your first mortgage.

    Can you name the U.S. president who raised taxes during a recession to fund increased infrastructure investment? Must be a real liberal, right? Nope, Actually, it was none other than Ronald Wilson Reagan, in 1982. He made this tough decision to ensure we had adequate investment in our transportation network. Reagan’s unlikely move is all the more amazing when you consider that he did it without facing the pressure of a potential shutdown of the federal highway and transit programs, as we do now. He raised auto fuel taxes 125%. At least that’s what the Washington Post found out when the went to the Reagan Library.

    Congress and the administration would do well to learn from the bold decisions made by Reagan and the 1982 Congress. They faced obstacles, including a recession, growing infrastructure needs and political challenges. Yet they worked together rather than bitched and moaned, to compromise and find a solution that sustained federal transportation investments for the following decade. They passed an additional 7-8 cent per gallon federal tax on gasoline what they did wrong was allocate 5-6 cents to the highway fund and 2-3 cents to transit. Why should gas taxes fund trains? Street’s are paid for using property taxes…..which is fair! Being able to leave and enter your neighborhood on streets is a good thing. Highways are paid for using tolls and gas taxes which is also fair because we use the highways! What’s fair about pilfering the highway trust fund to pay for trains were not riding.

  4. Sketter

    @LazyReader
    “What’s fair about pilfering the highway trust fund to pay for trains were not riding.”

    It may not be fair but atlesst it rectafies some of the imbalance from urban drivers SUBSIDIZING rural and exurban roads by allowing some of thier gas tax dollars to go back into thier regions by way of funding transit.

  5. prk166


    Congress and the administration would do well to learn from the bold decisions made by Reagan and the 1982 Congress

    LazyReader, I find few things less conservative than buying things today at your children and grandchildren’s expense. And since the gas tax is kinda sort not really but really user fee for US highways , I wouldn’t get too gooy over it one way or another.

    That said Reagan has essentially said over my dead body when it came to gas tax increases. It was only after the mid term elections where the Reeps bled seats that he flip-flopped on the issue.

  6. JOHN1000

    A little off topic, but shows consistency in government waste.

    Many urban areas have expended billions in building new schools with all the frills. (mainly with federal funds). Hey, the money is there, so why no grab it and spend it?

    They then complain they can’t buy books, etc. because they don’t have the money. The federal money was only to be used to build new schools, not to maintain existing ones and not to operate the schools as needed. Thus, no improvement in education while huge sums are wasted.

    And you know the new schools will not be maintained – just like the trains.

  7. prk166


    It may not be fair but at least it rectifies some of the imbalance from urban drivers SUBSIDIZING rural and exurban roads by allowing some of their gas tax dollars to go back into their regions by way of funding transit.
    ” ~Sketter

    What is “out of balance”? The whole paradigm at play at having PUBLIC transportation PUBLIC roads, is that we have roads built based on politics, not some strict rational metrics. If urban areas want the money they spend on roads to only go to the roads they use, they need to stop treating roads as a public good.

    Considering that bluest of the blue live in these urban areas, it seems rather odd that they’re complaining that a system that was designed to ensure that all got what they needed, regardless of how much they put in are complaining that the system is set up to work that way. I suspect a chunk of these people really aren’t being hypocritical, just tired of being stuck in traffic .

  8. Sketter

    @LazyReader

    What I was eluding to when I said “imbalance” was that fact that urban areas are constantly getting fleeced when it comes to gas tax revenue vs. gas tax expenditure with urban areas SUBSIDIZING other regions of the state or country. Constantly all I hear is that transit is local so local users or jurisdictions should pay the full cost of the system but funny how I never hear that about local rural or exurban roads when data shows that urban gas tax user are SUBSIDIZING those roads. Luckily some of this IMBALANCE is rectified on the federal level and on some state levels, because urban areas are recouping more of their gas tax revenue by the state and federal government by allowing gas tax revenue it to go towards transit or other transportation alternative infrastructures in these urban areas.

    https://streets.mn/2015/01/14/map-of-the-day-state-highway-taxes-vs-state-highway-spending/

    http://www.mocbt.org/urban-donors/

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