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Rail News: Passenger Rail

Public transit execs make 'urgent' call for infrastructure investment


By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor

On a media conference call yesterday, the chief executive officers of several U.S. transit agencies highlighted what they dubbed "an urgent need" for local, state and federal governments to increase investment in public transportation infrastructure.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) organized the event to draw attention to an $86 billion backlog in deferred maintenance and replacement needs at U.S. transit agencies. The figure comes from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which also estimates that more than 25 percent of rail transit assets and 40 percent of buses are in marginal and poor condition, APTA officials said.

"After decades of inadequate investment, the American public transportation infrastructure is crumbling," said APTA Chair Valarie McCall, a board member at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA). "This neglect demands attention at all levels of government so that public transit can continue to help grow communities and businesses."

APTA Acting President and Chief Executive Officer Richard White noted that U.S. transit agencies have accommodated a "tremendous growth in ridership" in recent decades.

Transporting a growing number of riders while also trying to maintain their agencies' assets in a "state-of-good repair" has been challenging during a long, national period of "under-investment" in infrastructure, White and other transit executives said.

For example, Congress has not raised the federal gas tax — a portion of which is used to fund public transportation systems — since 1993, noted GCRTA CEO/General Manager Joseph Calabrese.

"In Cleveland, we currently have $500 million in unfunded infrastructure needs in track, signal, propulsion power, rail car and bus needs," said Calabrese. "Our system is safe, but inadequate funding to renew and modernize our infrastructure, is making it harder and harder to guarantee the safety and reliability of our system."

In Philadelphia, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) General Manager Jeffrey Knueppel said that additional transportation funding stemming from Pennsylvania's passage of Act 89 (passed in 2013) and the federal FAST Act (passed in 2015) has helped SEPTA accelerate its capital investment program. However, he noted that "legacy transportation systems like ours are under significant pressure due to the conflicting trends of aging infrastructure and record ridership."

Public transit agencies that are unable to maintain their systems in a state of good repair can expect serious safety and reliability problems like those the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is trying to address, General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld acknowledged.

WMATA is "the poster child" for under-investment in public transportation infrastructure and maintenance, said Wiedefeld, who went on to detail his new plan to fix WMATA's safety problems. He unveiled the final version of the plan, known as "SafeTrack," yesterday.

"[WMATA's] infrastructure challenges are rooted in decades of deferred maintenance and underinvestment. We cannot wait any longer," Wiedefeld said in a prepared statement. "Getting [WMATA] back to a state of good repair will be challenging and require sacrifice, but it will not end there. Maintaining the system in the future is a multi-billion dollar investment that requires dedicated funding to keep Metro on track."

The APTA conference call coincided with National Infrastructure Week.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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