Federal Transit Administration Administrator Peter Rogoff was unflinchingly candid in a May 18 speech he delivered to the nation’s top public transit officials in Boston. Pointing out that the future of public transportation in the U.S. is in jeopardy, Rogoff bluntly told attendees that solutions are not only about engineering and economics: They are also about "honesty" and "moral choices."
Transit officials and local politicians need to be more honest with the public, Rogoff said bluntly, especially about the high costs of rail versus bus transportation.
"Supporters of public transit must be willing to share some simple truths that folks don't want to hear. 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.
"Once you've got special buses, it turns out that busways are cheap. Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system. Throw in signal preemption, and you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail."
Did I just hear the head of FTA telling local officials to stop misleading the public about the costs of bus rapid transit versus heavy rail like they did during the Dulles Rail debate? Especially since building and operating a BRT line costs about a tenth as much?
Be still, my heart!
American taxpayers are already saddled with a $50 billion backlog in unfunded capital maintenance incurred just by the nation’s seven largest rail operators – including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority. When you throw in smaller systems, the capital needs are $78 billion. Three-quarters of that amount is needed to replace worn-out rail assets. Rogoff, who rides Metro buses and trains nearly every day, noted that almost a third of all rail, bus and paratransit systems in the country are now in poor or marginal condition.
"Clearly, unless we can bring the nation's transit systems into a state of good repair, we won't get the riders we need to cut oil consumption and greenhouse gases, the sustainability of our transit systems will be in jeopardy; and the economic vitality of our cities will be undermined....Communities deciding between bus and rail investments need to stare those numbers in the face," Rogoff said.
"At times like these, it's more important than ever to have the courage to ask a hard question: If you can't afford to operate the system you have, why does it make sense for us to partner in your expansion?" the FTA chief asked.
Answer: It doesn’t.