We can’t afford not to fix transit systems first

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Monday, November 20, 2017

This New York Times feature story that appeared yesterday echoes same old depressing story that is playing itself out not only in New York, but also in Washington, Chicago and many other cities with rail transit systems on which tens or hundreds of thousands of residents rely nearly every day. Riders are experiencing frequent incidents that halt or delay service, and overall on-time performance is declining. While new lines and stations are opened and some cosmetic improvements are made, the systems’ basic functioning worsens. Politicians, agency management, labor unions and contractors all point fingers at each other, making it hard for riders to determine the ultimate cause of the stagnation and assign blame.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Washington Metrorail's Silver Line through Tysons Corner on Jul. 26, 2014. We may need to have fewer of these in the near term to get transit systems back to a state of good repair. Photo by BeyondDC / Flickr.com.
There is certainly plenty of blame to be shared — the current situation results from the combined effect of decisions that stretch back many decades. In New York's case, an outsized portion of the historical fault lies with Robert Moses, who amassed power over all transportation funding decisions in the city for four decades and resisted any investment in transit. But a base factor in many past decisions is that the glitz factor of new construction — both of new transit lines and stations and of the road infrastructure that draws people away from transit and eventually worsens congestion thanks to induced demand — makes it much more attractive to elected officials than spending large sums of public money on maintaining existing infrastructure. Keeping subway and rail systems in good repair does not mean ribbon cuttings or a visible asset that can carry and be known by the name of a politician or other prominent figure.

I, as much as anyone, like seeing new rail lines opened and transit services expanded. But if state and local leaders must commit the significant sums that are required in the immediate future to addressing maintenance backlogs and replacing outdated and overtaxed physical plants and signal and communications systems — even if that means postponing greatly desired new construction. Otherwise, metro areas will be faced with a host of negative consequences whose cost to the citizenry — not to mention to elected officials’ political livelihoods — will far outweigh any benefits to be gained from opening a new line, station, bridge or other identifiable improvement. 

Without transit systems to safely and reliably transport the masses, navigating daily life and sustaining a thriving economy in places like New York, D.C. and Chicago would be near impossible. These cities would almost literally be strangling themselves with unbearable traffic congestion.

The problem here is complex and systemic and it will take a concerted and sustained effort on many fronts to get to a point where sufficient funds are spent on maintenance without the possibility of being repurposed at the whims of elected officials. But no reform is possible unless politicians and system administrators hear loud and clear from their constituents and customers that getting to and sustaining a state of good repair on essential infrastructure, particularly rail systems, is a top priority. 

The only real motivating factor for elected officials is the fear of being voted out of office. This matters even more than campaign contributions and ribbon cuttings. If voters make clear en masse that how their elected leaders’ manage their tax dollars when it comes to transportation will affect how they vote, then politicians will listen. Voters can make their wishes clear by writing and calling their elected officials, by writing letters to the editor of local newspapers, messaging elected officials on social media, and by donating time and money to local advocacy organizations calling for a fix-it-first strategy.

It has been shown repeatedly that when an untenable status quo is entrenched and those in charge have insufficient will to change it, the only way to shake it up is through forceful and sustained citizen action. The time is ripe for local and national movements to call for fixing and modernizing our existing infrastructure — particularly rail and transit — before any new infrastructure is built.

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