In a speech in Boston early this week, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff sounds like he is channeling Wendell Cox or another of the Antiplanner’s faithful allies.
“Supporters of public transit must be willing to share some simple truths that folks don’t want to hear,” said Rogoff. “One is this — Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive. Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.” By coincidence, the Antiplanner made the same point on the same day as Rogoff’s speech.
Rogoff pointed out that America’s transit systems have $78 billion of deferred maintenance, the vast majority of which is for rail lines even though the majority of transit trips are by buses. His point is not simply that we aren’t maintaining rail lines, but that such maintenance is extremely expensive and rail supporters often deceptively ignore such costs when trying to sell new rail lines to the public. “if you can’t afford to operate the system you have,” Rogoff warns urban leaders, “why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?”
In contrast to rail, says Rogoff, “Bus Rapid Transit is a fine fit for a lot more communities than are seriously considering it.” While not suitable everywhere, there are many places that are considering light rail, commuter rail, and other rail lines that would do far better with BRT.
Not surprisingly, rail-transit supporters were quick to criticize Rogoff’s speech. They blame the federal government for failing to fund operating costs, which contributed to service cuts by many transit agencies in the current recession. (The federal government does provide some operating grants, but they think it should increase during the recession.) But that is a completely different issue from the maintenance issue that Rogoff is raising. Maintenance is considered a capital cost in FTA accounting, so the $78 billion in deferred maintenance can’t be blamed on the federal emphasis on capital.
Rogoff’s point is that at least 80 urban areas are seeking federal funds for rail transit, when the 30 or so urban areas that already have rail transit can’t afford to maintain the systems they have. As rail systems in Boston, Chicago, Washington, and other cities slowly collapse for lack of maintenance, it doesn’t make sense for cities like Charlotte and Phoenix to build more white elephants that will themselves suffer huge maintenance gaps in a few years.
Rogoff’s refreshing speech is a sharp contrast to the inane ideas that have come from the mouth of Rogoff’s boss, Ray LaHood. Maybe, if American taxpayers are lucky, Rogoff will someday replace LaHood.