Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An update on the rail/bus argument

A few days back, we dealt with a bit of a rail/bus argument brewing in Portland--wherein many transit advocates are assuming an anti-rail posture, on the belief that continued focus on rail expansion was jeopardizing bus service.  Some held this simply to be unwise choice; others saw more sinister motives. 

This debate is hardly unique to Portland of course; though this blog likes to focus on Stumptown.  Many transit agencies are having all sorts of trouble with operating deficits; one county in Georgia has dropped bus service altogether.

Yesterday, FTA chairman Peter Rogoff wandered into the briar patch--and gave a speech at the Boston Fed, that will make rail critics all over the country happy.  In said speech, Chairman Rogoff blamed many of the financial woes of many transit agencies on overzealous rail expansion.  He called for a focus on repairing dilapidated transit systems (by this, he means bringing them into functional working order, not sparkling-new status), and also endorsed Bus Rapid Transit as a substitute for rail in many circumstances--the BRT systems he described at least have a dedicated ROW and signal pre-emption; rather than just being a fancier bus).

Yonah Freemark at was not amused, however--noting that part of the problem is the fact that the Federal Government generally refuses to satisfy operations at all.  Transit administrators who want their share of federal dollars will only get it if they build something shiny and new.  Operations are often seen as a local problem--in large part out of concern that the money will go to pay raises for transit workers, not for improved or expanded service.   If DC's funding priorities change, excellent.  However, the government has been essentially encouraging the construction of capital projects, by not funding anythine else.  (And one way to improve operational efficiencies is to build rail, assuming an appropriate corridor).

One commentor at TTP pointed out another important factor:  Federally-funded projects generally have to be operated at a certain level of service, for a set number of years, as a condition of funding.  This is one reason, I suspect, that bus service in many places has borne the brunt of service cuts--were rails to be cut instead, the Feds would want their money back. 

While I'm not quite as annoyed by Rogoff's advice as Yonah--he certainly points out a disturbing trend that is obvious to many--the current policy of the Feds exacerbates the problems tremendously.  Much of these policies were inherited by the Obama Administration--and the prior administration seemed determined to make construction of quality transit as difficult as possible--but changes are needed.  Blaming transit admins for not doing their jobs--while in some cases true--is far from the whole story.  


  1. Taking money from the Fed's is like getting a home loan with a balloon payment mortgage.
    Good deal for a little while, but your screwed at the refinancing contract.

  2. I'll probably have more to say about the whole funding thing in a later blog post--but the way transit gets funded in this country leaves much to be desired.

    Both the mechanisms, and the amount.


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