FTA Chief Criticizes Rail Transit

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.

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18 thoughts on “FTA Chief Criticizes Rail Transit

  1. MJ

    Looks like Rogoff is embracing the “fix it first” philosophy. That’s just the kind of thinking that could get you fired from your job as FTA Administrator, especially if the Secretary of Behavior Modification finds out. I wonder what changed his mind.

  2. Dan

    Maybe the Exxon and BP lobbyists got to him, and want that money to go toward the 10-figure backlog in road maintenance so they can sell more product. Maybe its a head-fake for BP to distract away from their debacle/catastrophe.

    DS

  3. MJ

    Maybe the Exxon and BP lobbyists got to him, and want that money to go toward the 10-figure backlog in road maintenance so they can sell more product.

    Yeah, maybe. But if there is a connection between the FTA and BP/Exxon, I suggest that probably runs the other way. Rail construction projects are very energy-intensive and need large amounts of fuel to operate the construction equipment, something these companies might favor.

    Or maybe there is no relationship at all, and mentioning BP and Exxon is simply a convenient way to digress from the original topic.

  4. Dan

    Maybe the oil corporations still have deep ties in federal government left over from BushCo. The recent events seem to indicate so. Privileging Big Oil is unsurprising, but if you want to pretend that continuing to restrict competition is a digression from the original topic, feel free to wish.

    DS

  5. Scott

    Right. Most problems are caused by development, which involves oil & corporations.
    Try living without oil & business.
    Accidents happen in any industry.
    Should coal use (supplying 40% of electricity) be stopped because of more deaths in that sector of energy that the rest combined?

  6. Borealis

    It seems like the issue raised is “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.” That is a strong point.

    Rail transit advocates can probably make arguments as to why non-users of rail transit should provide subsidies for rail transit beyond construction and operating costs. I would like to hear what those arguments are.

  7. Dan

    Borealis, the same can be asked for oil subsides, road subsidies, corn subsidies…you are asking for ‘rational’ or ‘just’ arguments for privileging one action over another of the politicians. Oil subsidies are continued for payback to the oil lobby. White people want rail, so they vote for it.

    ~80 urban areas cannot afford to maintain the roads they already have as well.

    DS

  8. Scott

    Please point sources in any gov budget for subsidies for any consumer product.

    What constitutes a road subsidy & how much?
    It’s a basic part of gov infrastructure & the part not paid for by gas taxes is usually paid by property taxes.
    Regardless, roads are one of the most widely used (~85% directly) gov expenses, while public transit is <4%. And those adults who do not drive, pay far less than the avg, for non-user taxes for roads.

    The subsidy for ethanol is unjust, plus no gain over gasoline.

    What does white have to do with rail?
    (Sure, a higher % for commuter rail)
    Do non-whites (~35% of pop) not use rail?
    Rail does take money from buses & bus riders do have a higher % of non-whites.

    Double standard?
    Mass funding is okay for 60%+ of public transit, used by very few, but not for other items, used by most?
    If there is concern about non-user taxes for many programs, then there should be much more outcry over others, particularly public schools, Medicaid, all ag support & any program that does not go to all.

  9. the highwayman

    Roads are there regardless of the automobile & economic conditions(a.k.a “socialism”).

    Your arguments against railroads & transit are baseless.

    Koch pays O’Toole to lobby bullshit for their political/economic gain.

  10. Scott

    Why would roads be built without automobiles?
    Well, you might have a very few dirt roads for horses.
    Roads did just occur & are purposely built & funded by (80%+)automobile use.

    Doctors are there regardless of sick & dying.__???
    Public transit exists immaculately.__???
    Idiots continue, despite education.
    Koch makes many products used by many, many people & businesses, regardless of density or transportation mode.
    Why is there libelous slander about Koch lobbying?

  11. Spokker

    Rail must be placed where rail makes sense. You don’t put a light rail line in cities that aren’t dense enough, for example. I agree with many anti-rail advocates when they say that BRT would have been better for a city like Phoenix. You put in a good bus system (not just locals with stops every quarter of a mile), and then look at rail later on.

    But this cannot hurt rail’s chances of being built where rail makes sense, such as West Los Angeles along/under Wilshire Blvd. Think of Wilshire Blvd as an entire downtown area stretched along a single street.

  12. C. P. Zilliacus

    Spokker wrote:

    > But this cannot hurt rail’s chances of being built where
    > rail makes sense, such as West Los Angeles along/under
    > Wilshire Blvd. Think of Wilshire Blvd as an entire
    > downtown area stretched along a single street.

    I live on the Right Coast, but have some familiarity with Los Angeles generally, and Wilshire Boulevard in particular.

    There is a lot of transit bus traffic along Wilshire, but that does not convince me that a rail transit like is needed or appropriate.

    Do you know what the average number of weekday bus boardings in the Wilshire Boulevard corridor is?

  13. Spokker

    “Do you know what the average number of weekday bus boardings in the Wilshire Boulevard corridor is?”

    As of 2004 it was 93,094, up from 63,500 prior to June 2000 when the Metro Rapid 720 went into service.

    Today, the 720 buses alone run headways of 4-7 minutes throughout rush hour and most of the day between Wilshire & Westwood and 6th & Main in downtown. Buses are often standing room only during rush hour and even at midnight. I don’t use the 720 because I’ve been denied boarding because the bus was too full. I take the slower 20 instead.

    As of 2007, the 720 alone does about 43,000 boardings.

    If you want to see how the current subway is doing, check here: http://transittalk.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=general&action=display&thread=759&page=3

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  15. MJ

    Privileging Big Oil is unsurprising, but if you want to pretend that continuing to restrict competition is a digression from the original topic, feel free to wish.

    No wishing necessary. The original topic was the reason for Peter Rogoff’s change of tune. Let me know if you think he is in the pocket of “Big Oil” too.

  16. Dan

    Yes, and golly no Fossil Fool nor no Wall St influence touches this administration. I have a winnings for you frend from the kiNg of NigerIa. Just eMail me and Give me your Vital inforMation so I may meet you with you wInnings, Frieind!

    MMS. Lovely Coloradan Salazar tap-dancing.

    Uh-huh.

    Chuckle.

    DS

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