Failure to fix Metrorail could hammer local economy, report finds

Save Our System: We’re Number Three…

The American Public Transit Association and the nation’s civil engineers have together provided the grim numbers for our local transportation system and economy: the civil engineers’ group gave public transit the lowest grade, D, among elements of the country’s not too great infrastructure. Public transit systems had, in their terms, dumbed down their definition of success --  “success came to be understood in terms of preventing failure,” which has a familiar ring to us.

WMATA is third on the list of major urban systems in a series of case studies when it comes to necessary system repair costs, and third on that same list in terms of the battering the local economy will endure if those repairs are not largely accomplished in the next six years. The cost in jobs and prosperity will hamstring even a region that has the anchor (for now) of federal government employment and peripherals.

Local governments that have cobbled together a half-baked funding plan to (just barely) repair the neglected transit system are toying with big hits to the local economy. The not too hidden notion on the part of some officials that the repair funds will come out of the hides of Metro employees sets up a further struggle that employees will win and will leave the officials’ scheme in tatters.

Metro officials are already getting the picture that trying to come up with repair funds by raising transit fares is a recipe for further ridership declines. The flat $2 fare urged by transit advocates like Save Our System is the way to recapture ridership. A dedicated-tax source for the funds is still necessary, despite the artful dodging of tax-shy local governments.

Sigute Meilus of Save Our System argues that “WMATA's inability to boost ridership is directly related to the cost of riding Metro and the service offered. If Metro isn't running when you need it, or the route you were going to take has been cut or it is experiencing the latest Metro catastrophe, riders are going to find other options or be left stranded.

“WMATA's fares are too high for those who need public transit the most, and not competitive enough for higher income earners who opt for (more reliable) ride hailing services for the same price or slightly higher fares than WMATA. Increasing ridership to Metro will happen when they start improving reliability, expanding service, and improving affordability.

“We believe solutions are a flat fare, free transfers, and an expansion of pass programs to include an adult learner pass  and a low-income discounted pass. We know the changes we want to see come with a hefty price tag. WMATA decision makers must be held accountable to use any new WMATA funds to invest in improving service and affordability for riders.”

There has been some sense of relief lately as Metro’s troubles went viral nationwide, only to be echoed by the woes of other big-city systems.  

But being just Number Three on the list offers only limited schadenfreude relief.

WMATA’s potential bill for getting the system to acceptable working status is $6.6 billion. Chicago’s CTA faces a staggering $12 billion and change (222 miles of track vs. WMATA’s 117 miles) and greater Boston’s MBTA is looking at just over $7 billion.

If the needed repairs aren’t taken care of within 6 years, the DC Metro will be minus $4 billion – the net loss after the local economy takes a hit just short of $11 billion as a result of failing to commit the $6.6 billion that APTA estimates is needed.

Chicago faces a loss to the local economy of $25.2 billion (net minus about $12 billion) and Boston $15 billion or a net minus of nearly $8 billion.

New York’s system, not included in the case studies, is noted in the report to be responsible for a loss of about $1 million per day in the local economy because of the lack of upkeep in its system.

Systems in Atlanta, Philadelphia and San Francisco face lesser upkeep deficits and economic costs, but the six case studies amount to an overall $36 billion in repair needs and $74 billion in economic losses if the upkeep is not accomplished ($38 billion net loss).

The crippling effects – even now being felt – of galloping, unchecked climate change as a result of public transit deficits will add significantly to local losses. The lose-lose-lose scenario facing public officials who have spent the years since the Reagan implosion dodging taxes is not going to make political life any easier.

The total $90 billion upkeep deficit in major US public transit systems (it includes bus fleets) and the case studies were outlined in an article in the online professional newsletter Curbed and reposted in Streetsblog USA.

A version of this first appeared in /PM BlogSpace Report/ May 23.

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