Friday, May 21, 2010

Speaking truth to Peter Rogoff

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff made waves around the transit blogosphere (Yonah Freemark, Jarrett Walker, Matthew Roth) with his address to the summit on the future of transit in Boston. I agree with Rogoff's overall point: don't induce what you can't sustain. You can cut ribbons on a hundred shiny subway lines, but if you have to shut some of them down a few years later because you didn't maintain them properly, you've failed. If they drive away the new riders because they're uncomfortable and undependable, you've failed.

Some of Rogoff's other points were pretty lame, though. He argued that transit agencies should be concentrating on buses because "fully three quarters of the funding backlog we face in achieving a state of good repair is associated with underfunded rail assets." But as Yonah pointed out, "there are two very obvious reasons it costs the FTA more money to maintain urban rail: one, many of this country’s subway systems are decades old; and two, the FTA doesn’t have a responsibility to maintain the roads buses travel on — other state and federal agencies do."

I also have a question about this: does the FTA "state of good repair" budget include buying new buses? Because a lot of times the best way to get into a state of good repair is just to buy a new bus, so buses get replaced more often than rail cars, while rail cars get fixed. So if the money to replace buses is coming out of a different pot, then the percentage of rail maintenance needs is much lower than 75%.

Third, I thought it was fairly well recognized that rail facilities are more expensive to build and maintain, but bus facilities are more expensive to operate - largely because you need at least one staff member for a bus that holds 60 people at most, but one staff member can drive a whole train carrying hundreds of people. This is a tradeoff, and the choice depends on your anticipated maintenance vs. operating costs for each mode. Since the FTA doesn't pay for operating costs, well, that money isn't found in Peter Rogoff's budget.

Jeff "Pantagraph Trolleypole" Wood had an insightful comment on Yonah's blog: "Part of my problem with this commentary is that it doesn’t put this in the broader context of transportation in general. If transit agencies are going to tighten their belts, why don’t DOTs have to do the same thing? While it’s easy to tell transit agencies to buck up, it’s another thing to say they should absorb all the pain."

This is a very basic concept in transit planning: if our goal is to get people out of their cars, it doesn't matter how good transit is, it has to be better than private cars. In theory, in a recession with a congress full of anti-tax nuts it's a good idea for transit agencies to forego sexy ribbon-cuttings and snazzy system expansions. But if the state highway departments are still getting their ribbon-cuttings and system expansions, then transit will suffer.

If Rogoff doesn't know that city transit systems are in competition with the DOTs - and that he's in competition with the Federal Highway Administrator - for tax dollars to subsidize their mode, with the world's climate at stake - then he's an imbecile and has no business running the FTA. If he does know, then all his rhetoric about honesty and speaking truth to power and having the guts to say "no" is just a load of Beltway hot air.

Why isn't Rogoff honest about how highway subsidies drain riders from transit? Why won't he speak this truth to power - in this case, to FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez and the highway nuts at AASHTO? Why isn't he asking the President to have the guts to say "no" to the constant demands for more roads and bridges?

Furthermore, why this namby-pamby business asking transit administrators to be honest and gutsy - but only with other transit administrators? Why not ask Jay Walder to speak truth to the power of Stanley Gee? Encourage him to ask Governor Paterson to have the guts to say "no" to the New York State DOT's billions for highway widening? Tell him to be honest about how the Kosciuszko replacement will drain riders from the G train and the Tribororx (if that ever sees the light of day)?

Maybe that would be too gutsy and honest.


Alon Levy said...

The FTA's power isn't proportional to transit mode share; it's proportional to transit funding. In that setup, he has no reason to do things that would just make the government spend less on transportation infrastructure. Like the road builders of the mid-20th century, he gets nothing out of efficiency and even less out of politicizing the subject of his getting more money.

BruceMcF said...

@Alon, why, that's true ... but then if for entrenched institutional reasons he elected to "the convenient parts of the truth leaving out the hard but most important parts" to power ... should he adopt the pretense about talking truth to power?

Without a doubt, if he does elect to recommend talking the convenient parts of truth to power while leaving out the hard parts of the problem, and bills it as being more than that ... he should be called on it.

Helen Bushnell said...

Great post. We need to know who will stand up for our interests and who won't.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Cap'n, I'm starting to wonder if he doesn't really understand how funding works. Maybe he's just tired of everyone complaining about the New Starts process and how bad it sucks. At least with the 5309 bus funds he can just decide based on easier metrics and doesn't get yelled at by senators and congressman.