Following ‘Cash for Clunkers’ with ‘Riches for Rail’

Robert
Menendez (D-NJ), a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee, began
his hearing on transit today by displaying the above cartoon by
Pulitzer prize-winner Tom Toles. The senator’s message parallels
Toles’: In a world where the auto industry can get $2 billion more in one week, what’s to be done about rail’s $50 billion backlog?

Menendez, whose state is one of only four
in the nation where 10 percent of commuters take transit, said
lawmakers should weigh emergency spending authority for the Federal
Transit Administration (FTA) to help local agencies pay for equipment
repair needs that are estimated at $50 billion — for the top seven
urban rail networks alone.

But given the difficulty of wrestling transit’s long-term share of federal money past the
20 percent mark, winning emergency funds for rail would be a very heavy
political lift. So FTA chief Peter Rogoff focused on the more
achievable question of how to best spend Washington’s $5 billion-plus
budget for transit modernization.

"The
current formula" for distributing that money, Rogoff acknowledged, "is
a bit of a hodgepodge. It’s hard to define what the strategic goal of
it is."

Complicating the issue, he added, is that everyone
agrees transit agencies are falling far behind on keeping their
equipment in what the FTA calls "state of good repair," but few parties agree on how to actually define that term.

The
U.S. DOT is currently completing a more in-depth study of transit
modernization needs that aims to single out repair needs linked to
passenger safety, with findings expected early in the fall. Rail safety
has taken on new urgency in Congress in the wake of the D.C. Metro’s fatal crash in June.

Yet looking only at safety risks undercutting transit agencies’ ability to serve ridership that is hitting
record highs. Fixing escalators and crumbling train platforms "might
not be viewed
as safety-critical," Rogoff said, "but it can move people out of
transit and back to highways," thus further clogging the nation’s
already taxed roads.

One
thing that Menendez, Rogoff, and transit officials from four states
agreed on was the need to avoid penalizing agencies making progress on
repair with less federal money. In fact, New Jersey Transit was singled
out by the FTA in May for properly supporting its equipment health.

How
did the state get its transit into top shape? It was simple as
formulating a workable long-term funding plan, NJ Transit executive
director Richard Sarles testified before Menendez.

Given the Capitol’s current focus on short-term stimulus, however, that task is far more challenging than it might seem.

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