Aging Transit Systems in D.C., Boston Experience Growing Pains As Other Places Look to Invest in Transit Expansion

As Washington, D.C.’s Metro system marked its 40th anniversary last month, concerns about damage caused by a fire near the McPherson Square station prompted a 29-hour shutdown of the hugely important regional transit system and prompted much speculation about what could lie ahead for Metro. Meanwhile, Boston’s transit agency moved to cut back late night service on the T as officials said it was too expensive and impacted maintenance schedules on the nation’s oldest subway system, which opened in 1897. I also have items below on states and communities around the country that are moving to invest in transit expansion.

More Metro Shutdowns Ahead?

During the March 16 system closure, Metro work crews inspected all 600 train power cables and found at least 26 cables and connectors in need of immediate repair. All were repaired before Metro reopened the next day, Greater Greater Washington reported. But concerns remain about a system-wide issue with faulty power cables.

Metro officials said the McPherson Square fire that caused the damage was “disturbingly similar” to a deadly 2015 smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza, The Washington Post noted.

Immediately after the shutdown last month, speculation began as to whether such occurrences were likely to become the “new normal” for Metro. The Atlantic CityLab blog even suggested that Metro needed to shut down for a lot longer.

“Riders on D.C.’s Metrorail system have at this point endured at least seven years of consistent, major weekend service disruptions associated with repair and maintenance work, along with, in more recent years, an escalating pattern of serious safety and reliability failures,” the blog noted.

As The New York Times noted, the Federal Transit Administration in June had issued a report last June warning about “serious safety lapses” at Metro.

Still it came as a shock to some when Metro board chairman Jack Evans and General Manager Paul Wiedefeld warned that the transit system might have to shut down entire rail lines for as long as six months for maintenance.

“There may be decisions where we have to close down whole lines and repair them, which are going to be very unpopular,” Evans reportedly said. “But the only way that we are going to get this system fixed is to make unpopular decisions.”

Evans said the Metro system’s health long-term requires a permanent source of financing like a regional sales tax along with annual federal contributions. But, as The Washington Post noted, it could be hard to win support for a regional tax increase in the Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly or from Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx suggested Metro would have support if shutdowns were deemed necessary. Local officials also expressed support. Greater Greater Washington examined what transit alternatives might be needed if rail lines need to be shut down.

Just days later Wiedefeld walked back the shutdown talk a bit saying he doesn’t see any need for a long closure of any part of the system, The Post reported.

Still, former DC Planning Director and Metro Board Member Harriet Tregoning told WTOP radio she hopes the treatment of the issue showed that Metro’s history of sweeping safety problems under the rug was coming to an end.

“We have consistently, year after year, from the very beginning, underfunded this system,” she said. “We don’t have a dedicated source of revenue, and we’ve taught the Metro organization to tell us, the region, what we want to hear, and that is ending with Paul Wiedefeld. We are going to hear the truth, we’re going to hear what we need, not what we want to hear, and that is a great thing.”

U.S. Senators from Maryland and Virginia announced late last month they are calling on congressional appropriators to fully fund the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). There also appears to be renewed interest in getting a local independent oversight agency called the Metro Safety Commission up and running as Secretary Foxx and others have called for, WTOP reported.

And just this week, the FTA launched intensive inspections of Metro tracks, including 10 “segments of concern” scattered throughout the system’s six rail lines, The Post reported. A final report on the safety blitz is expected by early this summer.

Boston’s Aging Transit System Also On the Brink

But Metro is not the only aging transit system experiencing a rough patch. The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), operators of Boston’s subway system, known as the T, which opened way back in 1897, is one of the most financially distressed transit agencies in the country, The American Prospect magazine reported this month. The nation’s fifth-largest mass transit network has about $9 billion in debt and a maintenance backlog of about $7 billion.

Jim Aloisi, a former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, told the magazine “You cannot run public transportation by luck. [The MBTA] also has to address the state of good repair gap. You have to have a comprehensive plan because it is the lack of such a plan that gets you into the kind of trouble that WMATA finds itself.”

The Boston Globe reported in January that MBTA’s trolley, subway and commuter rail systems all experienced more major mechanical breakdowns per train mile traveled than most of the nation’s other transit systems in 2014, according to federal data.

This February the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board announced they were pulling the plug on late night T transit service effective March 19, as New England Cable News reported. They cited ridership declines, mounting costs and the inability to do maintenance on the system during key overnight hours.

The MBTA received a rebuke from the Federal Transit Administration for failing to follow civil rights guidelines that required the agency to fully examine whether cancellation of the service would disproportionately hurt minorities and low-income riders, The Boston Globe reported. The Atlantic CityLab also reported on the issue.

There are also concerns about the impact of the cancellation on late night bar crawlers and the city’s night life, The New York Times reported.

The loss of the late night service is already prompting some creative thinking. Aloisi was among the authors of a piece in CommonWealth magazine last month offering what they called “an affordable pathway toward establishment of a robust late-night transit service on the MBTA.”

But the MBTA faces additional challenges ahead. The ballooning cost of a proposed extension of the T’s Green Line prompted state transportation officials to look at a potentially scaled-back, less accessible version of the project. Officials have been holding a series of public meetings leading up to what’s expected to be a vote on a re-evaluation of the project next month, according to Wicked Local

And then there are the concerns about the system’s maintenance backlog. This month’s article in The American Prospect put it this way: “Regular delays caused by disabled trains as well as signal and switching problems had been a grim reality for more than a decade. Gaps of 20 minutes or more during rush hours are not uncommon. The long waits between trains that D.C.’s Metro riders face on weekends during which repairs are conducted are the norm during non-peak periods on the Boston system.”

Aloisi told the magazine one of the things he hopes comes out of the WMATA situation is a federal safety protocol requiring transit agencies to do a forensic engineering review on a regular basis. That way, Aloisi said, “we’re staying on top of these issues and are not letting them get worse, so that then we don’t have to talk about shutting systems down.”

Rail Safety in the Spotlight

Sunday’s fatal Amtrak crash in Pennsylvania prompted the Federal Railroad Administration to direct the national passenger railroad to conduct immediate safety reviews, The Wall Street Journal reported. Two Amtrak workers were killed in the crash when a train collided with a maintenance vehicle on the tracks. The newspaper reported that a basic safety device that might have prevented the crash wasn’t in place, despite Amtrak rules requiring use of the device in most situations.

Just to keep things in perspective, USA Today noted this week that despite a couple of high-profile crashes in the last year, Amtrak collisions and passenger deaths are rare. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, just a handful of rail passengers die most years and 96 percent of railway deaths are suicides or people not authorized to be on the tracks.

State Transit Updates

  • California: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Los Angeles has unveiled a $120 billion plan to fund more than three dozen mass transit and highway improvements over the next four decades by extending the current sales tax for 18 years if voters approve the proposal, which is expected to appear on the November ballot, according to The Los Angeles Times. But as the newspaper reported elsewhere, some are already asking for changes to the plan and arguing that transportation sales taxes are regressive and bear little relationship to transportation. And easing traffic in congestion-clogged L.A. could require even more than what MTA has in mind, The Atlantic’s CityLab blog argued recently.
  • Georgia: State lawmakers have approved SB 369, which would allow Atlanta voters to decide whether to levy a .5-percent sales tax to fund transit projects in the city, Creative Loafing reported. The tax could raise an estimated $2.4 billion over the next 40 years and fund new lines for the MARTA light rail system, infill stations, transit along the Atlanta Beltline and other transit improvements.  The measure would also allow areas of Fulton County outside Atlanta to levy up to a .75-percent sales tax to fund mostly roads in those areas. A previous incarnation of the bill would have allowed for the extension of MARTA to Alpharetta, Lithonia and through the Emory University/CDC corridor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted. Leaders in Alpharetta and Johns Creek said they were worried a MARTA expansion into their communities might worsen the metro area’s traffic congestion rather than improving it. Others wanted the legislation to encompass Cobb and Gwinnett counties in addition to Fulton and DeKalb. But some are concerned now that the decision to focus on Atlanta and Fulton County in the final version of the bill will not move the area any closer to a regional transit system and will only prolong an age of “micro-regionalism” in the state.
  • Hawaii: The New York Times recently took a look at the challenges Honolulu has faced in building a 20-mile elevated train line near the southern coast of Oahu. The project is now expected to cost over $2 billion more than originally planned and it’s already two years behind schedule.
  • Illinois: The Chicago Transit Authority is receiving a $255 million TIFIA loan to help them purchase 490 new railcars, which will help to modernize the nation’s second largest transit system, the AASHTO Journal noted.
  • Maryland: The Maryland Board of Public Works this week approved a $5.6 billion, 876-page contract with a team of companies to build and operate the Purple Line, a 16-mile suburb-to-suburb light rail project outside Washington, D.C., The Washington Post reported. Purple Line Transit Partners, a team led by the firm Fluor Enterprises, will build the project at a construction cost of $1.9 billion, which is about a half-billion less than earlier estimates. Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration estimates the new total costs would reach $3.3 billion after six years of construction and 30 years of passenger service. WAMU last month took a look at how the governor and his team were able to slim down the project to achieve the cost savings. But an analysis from the Maryland General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services found recently that the true cost of the project is likely $650 million more than what the contract would cover once things like planning, right-of-way purchase, utility work and design review are factored in, The Washington Business Journal reported.
  • Michigan: Detroit voters could be asked to support a property tax millage this fall to support regional public transit, but legislation introduced in the Michigan Senate seeks to cap the amount the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan would be able to request for the tax increase, The Detroit Free Press reported.
  • Minnesota: The state department of transportation has been charged by the legislature with studying ways to reach the goal of meeting 80 percent of the state’s transit needs, according to The Post-Bulletin. But transportation planners said recently only about 66 percent of those needs are currently met, which translates to about 500,000 trips where people had to cancel or find some other way to get around. More information about the MnDOT study is here.
  • Nevada: Las Vegas is looking to Denver’s light rail system for inspiration as members of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada look to develop their region’s transit system, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. The RTC members, who last month toured rail facilities at downtown Denver’s Union Station and the new station at Denver International Airport that’s scheduled to open later this month, said they heard frequently that “collaboration” was the key to Denver’s success.
  • New Jersey: Despite a projected $57 million budget gap for NJ Transit, Gov. Chris Christie said recently not to expect a transit fare hike this year, the Associated Press reported.
  • New York: The chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said last month that if the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo don’t approve the MTA’s capital plan by June 30 the agency will run out of money and be unable to begin new projects, Politico New York reported. The MTA is in the midst of the longest period it has gone without a state-approved capital plan.
  • North Carolina: A House transportation study panel is recommending that the legislature eliminate a recent cap on state funding for light rail transit projects in the state that appeared to jeopardize a Durham-Chapel Hill rail project, the Associated Press reported. The legislature inserted the $500,000 cap on state funds for light rail projects into last year’s budget.
  • Tennessee: The Nashville Business Journal recently took a look at three scenarios Nashville transit officials are considering to improve transit options along a number of congested corridors in the region. The most costly option would incur $5.5 billion in capital costs over the next 25 years and $318.3 million in annual operating costs.
  • Utah: Washington County (county seat: St. George) is looking at putting a local option sales tax on the ballot this November to help fund transit, The Spectrum reported. The county was not one of those that considered an increase last year, when sales tax ballot measures passed in 10 of the 17 counties that considered them. But county officials say they would have considerable work to do with voters to convince them to approve such a measure in Utah’s furthest Southwest county despite the need to provide residents more alternative modes of transportation.
  • Washington: The recent opening of two new light rail stations in Seattle brought out the curious, increased workweek ridership on the Link system more than 50 percent on some days and prompted Sound Transit to announce they will add rail cars to the system, The Los Angeles Times reported. The new stations form the heart of a 3.2 mile extension for the system that transit officials say came in six months ahead of schedule and $200 million below the project’s $1.9 billion budget, the AASHTO Journal noted. And the addition of the Capitol Hill and University of Washington stations could be just the tip of the iceberg. Sound Transit is planning a ballot measure this fall to ask voters for $50 billion to expand the system into more Seattle-area neighborhoods. But some are already questioning why the agency’s draft plan proposal for transit upgrades would take 25 years to complete, KOMO News reported. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Transport Politic have more details on the plan.

Further Reading

InfraAmericas U.S. P3 Infrastructure Forum 2016

CSG this year will once again serve as a supporting organization for the InfraAmericas U.S. P3 Infrastructure Forum, which takes place June 15-16 at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. The forum brings together state and federal public officials with infrastructure developers, investors, financiers and regional transportation authorities for an essential conversation about the state of the P3 industry. Now in its twelfth year, the forum features informative panels and key networking opportunities. Speakers announced so far include Douglas Koelemay, the Director of Virginia’s Office of P3s, and Shailen Bhatt, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Transportation. You can register to attend the event at this link. And for more of an idea of what to expect, check out my coverage of last year’s event.