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What is Behind the Great Transit Crackup?

This year has seen a plethora of major troubles in legacy transit cities—Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, DC in particular (but there are also serious deferred maintenance problems in Chicago and Miami). In addition, there were major disruptions within the American Public Transit Association, the trade association for nearly all of America’s public transit systems.


The year began with what has been described as a “melt-down” at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which failed to keep its trains running during a snow storm. San Francisco’s 44-year old BART system had to take 50 railcars out of service in March due to damage to electronics from a still-unexplained power surge. Philadelphia’s SEPTA recently took a fleet of new Silverliner railcars out of service, due to cracks in a key component of their suspension system. But by far the greatest fiasco was the closure of the Washington Metro for an all-up safety inspection, after a series of crashes and fires that have included a number of fatalities.


Broadly speaking, deferred maintenance is the common factor in most of these cases. As DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx put it in remarks delivered June 29th , the mentality in previous decades was “build it, build it, build it, and let’s worry about repairs later. We bought the house, but didn’t set aside any maintenance dollars for the house. So the roof got leaky, the floorboards started popping up. We decided we could live with it for a while, and now things have gotten so that the repairs are so much more expensive.” Referring to the Washington Metro in particular, Foxx said, “My view is that Metro needs to really get its house in order and focus on what it has, before thinking about doing any expansion.” Better late than never, but it’s tragic that no previous DOT Secretary (say 10 years or so ago) had the courage to say that.


The problem at many of these agencies is basically the incentives of the political appointees who constitute their governing boards. Zachary Schrag’s 2006 book, TheGreat Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, includes a serious discussion of what even then was “a looming maintenance backlog” that was greatly exacerbated “by the constant desire of politicians to prioritize shiny new stations and extensions,” rather than boring old maintenance work. (The quotations here are Eno Transportation Weekly editor Jeff Davis’s paraphrase of Schrag’s discussion.) In other words, what we have is an institutional failure, at its core a dysfunctional governance model.


In the case of San Francisco’s BART, much of its current maintenance problem was self-inflicted by engineering hubris. Back in the early ’60s, determined to reinvent rail transit, its designers opted for a unique 5′ 6″ track gauge, which required custom-made trucks and wheelsets, brake systems, and track repair vehicles, not currently available from any suppliers. They created a unique 1,000-volt electrical power system, for which no replacement parts are available. The train control system, still using 1972 microprocessors, is responsible for more than 25% of all delays, because it creates “ghost trains” wherein the computer freezes train movements due to images of a train that is not there.


While all this was going on, a great shake-up took place at APTA. It began late in March when New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that it was quitting the organization, effective immediately. In its letter explaining the decision, MTA’s top officials noted that there were no Legacy System members on the APTA Executive Committee, nor any operators of commuter rail systems—two segments that “alone make up the overwhelming majority of total customers served by public transit” in this country. Moreover, there was only one Executive Committee member from the Northeast, compared with six from California alone. The Legacy System members alone (all major rail and bus operators) account for almost 60% of all transit passengers. Their needs, especially “state of good repair” needs, are “an order of magnitude greater than the non-Legacy rail systems.” And after a period of serious cost-cutting at MTA ($1.8 billion in reduced costs in a $14 billion annual budget), MTA could not justify the $400,000 annual cost of continued APTA membership, compared with the value it was receiving from other memberships.


Less than a month after MTA’s April 8th letter, APTA President Michael Malaniphy had resigned, after less than five years on the job. So far there have been no announced changes to APTA’s Executive Committee, but Vice President Rosemary Sheridan told Politico that the criticisms raised by the MTA would not be ignored. Given how serious the problems facing legacy transit systems have become, that would be an appropriate challenge for APTA to focus on under a new president.


(This column first appeared in the July 12 issue of Surface Transportation News on Reason.org.)


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