D.C. Metro Crash Highlights Underfunding of Public Transit Systems

Article excerpt

Federal investigators don't yet know why DC Metro Train 112 rounded a bend near Fort Totten station and slammed into Train 214 this week, taking nine lives and injuring 80.

But what is known is that there is a vast and widening gap between what's needed to keep America's public transportation systems fit to ride and what federal, state, and local authorities are investing in them.

More than one-third of assets in the nation's seven largest rail transit agencies, including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), are in marginal or poor condition, according to an April report by the Federal Transit Administration.

These include public rail systems in New York, Chicago, Boston, New Jersey, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Together, these systems account for more than 3 billion passenger trips a year.

A fix for the backlog would cost $50 billion; maintaining good repair thereafter, another $5.9 billion annually. But the actual level of investment in rehabilitation, replacement, and improvement of existing transit assets in these systems was $5.4 billion in 2006, the latest year reported in the study.

"Americans are riding public transportation at record levels, with 10.7 billion trips taken in 2008, the highest in 52 years," said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

Taking a wider look at the capital needs for all public transportation systems, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials reports that an annual investment of $46 billion is needed to keep up with an expected 2.4 percent annual growth in ridership.

If public transportation use increases to 3.5 percent - a level projected in some models of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions - annual investment in public transportation needs to rise to $59 billion per year. …