FTA Boss: “Paint is Cheap, Rails Systems are Extremely Expensive”

newsom_central_subway.jpgSFMTA Chair Tom Nolan, Mayor Gavin Newsom, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi at the groundbreaking for the Central Subway. Photo: mayorgavinnewsom.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff has been shaking up transit agencies across the country in the short year he has headed the FTA, from working with advocates in the Twin Cities who wanted additional stops added in under-served communities along the Central Corridor rail route to his decision to deny BART the $70 million it requested for its Oakland Airport Connector.

Now, in a speech delivered this week in Boston, Rogoff set off another heated debate among transit advocates and operators about the federal government’s role in funding expansion projects when the agencies building them don’t have enough operating money to run their existing systems.

Rogoff asked how wise it is of the FTA to put money into new transit capacity, particularly expensive rail capacity, when virtually every operator across the nation has raised fares and cuts service because of lower sales tax receipts and ubiquitous cutbacks in city and state transit funding levels.

"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?" asked Rogoff.

He went on to question some rail expansion projects when a bus rapid transit system would be far cheaper and could achieve similar ridership benefits.

"Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive," said Rogoff.

Buses already account for 21 percent more transit trips nationally than rail and Rogoff said riders can be happy with buses if they meet their expectations for service and cleanliness. "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."

"Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system," he added. "Throw in signal preemption, and you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail."

Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic wrote one of the more
impassioned critiques
of Rogoff’s speech, calling his view naive and suggesting that Rogoff doesn’t account for the failure in Congress to commit serious money to transit operations and expansion:

The unfortunate reality for Mr. Rogoff is that the federal government’s steadfast unwillingness to help cover operations spending is the primary reason agencies haven’t been able to maintain service levels during the economic downturn. Meanwhile, while he may be right that transit organizations aren’t doing enough to keep their systems in good shape, he neglects to mention that that problem is a reflection of the federal government’s inability to increase spending levels on maintenance in line with needs.

In the Bay Area, the ramifications of Rogoff’s speech could be significant for several key expansion projects, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA) Central Subway and BART to San Jose.

SFMTA Chief Nat Ford told Streetsblog that he’s not worried the FTA will change its position on funding for the Central Subway, even with the recent 10 percent service cuts at Muni.

"Last year we went through a very vigorous financial audit administered by the FTA to make sure that we had enough financing to run our existing system properly, keep it in a good state of repair, in advance of approving our full funding grant agreement for Central Subway," said Ford. "They gave us a green light to move into final design. That’s why we’re proposing that the system we operate, we can properly operate from a financial situation."

Unlike the Twin Cities Central Corridor project, which has fully lined up its local funding match, the SFMTA still has to secure $164 million in local funding by the end of 2011 to satisfy the FTA. Rogoff wrote in a January 7 letter that he was concerned about the SFMTA’s ability to maintain a state of good repair to the existing system without degrading existing service.

Presumably, if the SFMTA restores some or all of the service it cut this year, which Mayor Newsom and the Board of Supervisors are debating, it will go a long way toward placating the federal administration.

At BART, spokesperson Linton Johnson said his agency doesn’t disagree with Rogoff, but argued the FTA was "taking a too simplistic look at the overall picture."

"If an expansion does bring a transit system enough new riders that it both enhances the existing system and gets people out of their cars, resulting in cleaner air, then we can’t afford not to do both," said Johnson. "The bottom line is it’s not always an either or. Sometimes you have to spend money to make a lot more money."  

BART Board Director Tom Radulovich agreed with Johnson that expansion must be sound and attend to the needs of the core system.

"Sustainable expansion must be built on a sound foundation of
reinvestment in existing systems and services, and maintaining service
quality while expanding to new markets," said Radulovich. "Expanding service in this new
environment of capacity constraints and fiscal constraints calls for
planning that is less about delivering trophy projects, and more about
delivering value for money."

"BART extensions which make new demands on overstretched operating
budgets, compete with maintenance needs for scarce capital dollars and
don’t address core system impacts are
unsustainable," he added.

  • Finally, something resembling a voice of sanity in a major policy making position.

    Rogoff (or this position) won’t last a minute. The transportation pork mafioso will see to that. Bad spending is way more profitable than good spending, after all, always has been, and always will be.

    PS As usual, a huge hooray for Tom Radulovich, who has lasted a lot longer than a minute, but at the cost of being outvoted 8-1 nearly every time by the corrupt and dimwitted troglodytes who warm the rest of the seats on the BART board and by being right nearly every time.

  • Rob

    We really do need to make good decisions. Above and beyond the discussion of rail or bus, and it is agreed that rail isn’t best for every place and time that it is wanted or desired, one of the toughest decisions facing us is how we will continue to fund all modes in years to come, highways included.

    Despite the fact that the funding pool for highway creation, maintenance, and expansion absolutely dwarfs the pool available for transit, there is not presently enough money to bring our highways up to a good state of repair. Not only is condition problematic, but the full array of adverse consequences attached to congested urban highways accelerate with each passing year. What level of accountability exists for the funding that goes to urban highways? How effective have our investments been over the past ten years in urban areas? Have the major capital projects yielded the lasting benefits they projected in gainging authorization to proceed? In the same way that we must consider how and why our transit systems fall into disrepair, we must ask the same of our higway system operators, including requiring proof of the effectiveness of their investments.

    As we examine new methods or approaches for financing major capital projects, maintenance, and operation of our highway system, we must not forget that our transportation system is increasingly reliant on transit – and must be. Transit benefits everyone and federal transportation funding should be appropriately shared, project evluation and development standards should be mode-neutral, and outcome accountability applied evenly. Yes, we need to require hard – but informed – decisions between bus and rail, but it is equally important to ensure that funding mechanisms and project development rules don’t effectively undercut both options from even being considered in the first place; unfortunately, that is where we are at now, though the current administration is making many important changes and continues to work toward improved outcomes.

  • the FTA guy is making a couple of different arguments.

    the first one — he says don’t expand transit at all if you can’t afford what you’ve already got.

    the second one — he says one of two things, either: 1) use buses instead of trains, or 2) use buses instead of trains to expand your system even more than you would have if you stuck with trains.

    in any case, what is the role of the FTA in ‘off years’? does he not have anything to do? i hear they need some help down on the bayou where the Third Gulf War just started.

    and i absolutely love the ‘move a lot of people’ line — that’s pretty much the problem with transit in America — just do whatever you can to move a lot of people — even if it’s on buses — we don’t care about those things inside the buses — just move ’em — they’re inanimate objects — widgets — cargo — something akin, perhaps, to livestock, but not to be confused with actual human beings — they’re less than human beings, obviously — they ride buses when they have no other choice, what else would they be?

    the level of hatred for transit riders is not at all surprising to me. people who argue for bus transit instead of rail often develop this hatred if they aren’t born with it — it comes from not having experience riding transit, racism, classism, etc. it’s not just indifference — it’s hate. at the federal level, transit riders are thought of as cattle. unfortunately, too many transit ‘advocates’ feel the same way.

  • Speaking of signal privatization, is SFGo ever going to be fixed so that the T doesn’t make a dozen unnecessary stops on the way downtown? It’s interesting that we’re looking at all these best practices for implementing Geary and Van Ness BRT when the existing rail system is hopelessly broken with a flaky ATC and pathetic speed and too many stops as soon as it leaves the subway.

    The BRT projects are desperately needed and I’m looking forward to them, but I think Muni has a great opportunity to practice how they will implement BRT by fixing the on-street operation of the existing rail system now!

  • I’ll be brief. Is Nat Ford high???

  • jaded

    I agree, seriously I don’t know how BART can think that BART to San Jose is going to add more regular riders than adding capacity in the urban core. Hopefully we can use our money wisely.

  • Nevermind. I can’t be on this.

    “Last year we went through a very vigorous financial audit administered by the FTA to make sure that we had enough financing to run our existing system properly, keep it in a good state of repair, in advance of approving our full funding grant agreement for Central Subway,” said Ford. “They gave us a green light to move into final design. That’s why we’re proposing that the system we operate, we can properly operate from a financial situation.”

    Tell me how that even remotely makes sense. Did we not just have the largest service cuts in muni’s history? And he said they passed a financial audit last year and that “That’s why we’re proposing that the system we operate, we can properly operate from a financial situation.” What system is he talking about? Cause he sure isn’t talking about muni. And by “probably” does he mean “not a f’ing chance in hell”?

    I always had a hunch the services cuts were tied closely to the fact that the sfmta had to get operating costs well in control to get the federal dollars, but now Ford took the next step and said screw it. He’s just going to rewrite facts and make up his own reality. “Feds said we are fiscally sound. Build the subway!” All while the house of cards comes crashing down.

  • Since I’m in the Midwest sober, let’s keep the ball rolling.

    Using stats about bus vs rail as a basis to saying people don’t mind buses is a joke. Nearly all trasit service around the country is bus thanks to GM and their holdings via 1940s – 50s. But I will say BRT now is good because it is much cheaper to build and maintain. It’s not ideal, but we need to provide quick reliable service asap to get people out of private auto.

    The Feds do need to revise their rules to offer more flexiblity for transfering funds from capital to operational and also build a structure to provide operational funds.

  • Oops. “probably” needs to “properly”, but what I said holds true for either word. Though Ford would have been better served If he used “probably”.

  • Karl

    BRT, right. Wait for the Van Ness and Geary BRT lanes to go in, and watch the ensuing clusterf* of traffic that’ll cause. There is no alternative to keep going underground, just like any comparable city in the developed world has for decades.

  • Underground on Van Ness and Geary would be fine, but who’s going to pay for it? And if they plan it like they are planning the central subway, it’s better if they just go with BRT.

    And I think BRT on both those streets won’t be as bad as you make it sound. A lot of traffic on both streets is local and can take alternate routes if needed. Plus, with fast reliable BRT more people will ride so less cars.

  • marin

    By the same logic, we really shouldn’t be pursuing high-speed rail. Let’s just stripe the interstates and step up the levels of service on Greyhound all across America. My great fear is coming truye — the enthusiasm for HSR is sucking oxygen away from New Starts projects

  • This coming from someone with Marin as their name. Ha.

    And this has nothing to do with HSR. This has to do with transit agencies expanding well beyond their means. But I will say, this same logic needs to be applied to highway expansion 100 fold as states can’t maintain their current inventory. We continue to build highways as our roads and bridges crumble.

  • Jym

    =v= Maybe a coat of paint will fool (some) riders, and externalizing some operating costs into the road maintenance will fool (most?) politicians, but increased fuel consumption and pollution won’t fool Mother Nature.

  • The “light” rail vehicles used by Muni are actually quite heavy, and not all that energy efficient. Also, let’s not make the mistake of assuming rubber-tire buses are only diesel powered.

    Here are Muni’s operating cost figures for 2007 (taken from National Transit database):

    Muni operating cost per vehicle revenue mile
    LRT: $24.36
    Trolleybus: $19.27
    Bus: $16.44

    Muni operating expense per vehicle hour
    LRT: $216.08
    Trolleybus: $130.88
    Bus: $145.44

  • Jym

    =v= Muni certainly has a knack for doing rail badly, as previously discussed, and while the effects are acute for us in San Francisco, they are not generalizable to the rest of the nation. The Bredas cars that Willie Brown saddled us with weigh more than BART cars, and as you say are not “light” rail in any sense, yet there they are as exemplar “LRT” figures.

    The bus figures, as I mentioned in my comment immediately preceding, rely on ignoring the costs of road maintenance.

    Nobody mentioned diesel, so don’t assume that assumptions are being made.

  • We applaud Administrator Rogoff for asking the hard questions — the Transportation Equity Network granted him its Rosa Parks Award this year for asking hard questions about civil rights in transit. But putting the BRT vs. rail question aside, it’s going to take action from Congress to stabilize existing mass transit systems by letting them use federal funds to cover operations costs. TEN supports the $2 billion Public Transportation Preservation Act in the Senate as one way to address the massive operations deficits around the country. Whether or not transit systems see that money, they need more flexibility in the future to use federal dollars for day-to-day operations, not just maintenance and expansion.

  • marcos

    The Feds need to be “all in” on public, mass and rapid transit at the local, regional, state and national levels.

    We need to set targets for where we want to be and then marshal resources accordingly.

    BRT on Van Ness and Geary will offer up incremental gains, but as population increases those gains will be consumed in the mid term.

    San Francisco needs to grow up as a city and work with the feds to commit to an aggressive program of subway construction.

    Anything else just kicks the can down the road, does little to kick our addiction to petroleum or reduce our carbon footprint, and encourages the terrorists to win.

    -marc

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