GAO report on transit 1998-2008
The Government Accountability Office delivered a report (abstract here) to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs on Nov. 30th examining the growing pains that our current transit system is feeling. Primarily, they looked at the increase in ridership that has occured over this period, and the difficulties many transit authorities have had adjusting to this increased demand.
What’s interesting is that even though revenue and fares increased, many of the systems saw their costs increased as well, and not simply from having to increase service levels. While buses had to run more frequently in some areas, or some train platforms had to be extended, simply keeping the infrastructure in repair proved to be a monumental cost for many of the service providers.
Ultimately, the GAO makes three key recommendations to the Committee, as stated in the abstract:
focusing resources on state of good repair, streamlining the delivery of federal grant programs, and incorporating performance accountability measures to maximize the impact of investments.
The state of good repair one probably sounds the most mundane, but there’s an additional insight to be gained from its role in GAO’s report:
Officials from the majority of transit agencies with whom we spoke emphasized the importance of maintaining a state of good repair in order to meet future increases in ridership demand. However, agency officials pointed out it is easier to procure additional federal funding to support new transit capital projects than to obtain funding to help maintain their existing vehicles and infrastructure.
While the other GAO recommendations are important, the federal prioritization of new capital projects over repairing older ones deserves a hard examination. While infrastructure can grow so old that it may be more costly to maintain due to obsolesence, this hierarchy of spending still comes off as wasteful, poorly planned, and unsustainable.