By Jay Landers
Beset by long-term problems related to underinvestment and inadequate maintenance, the U.S. transit sector confronts challenges pertaining to funding, demographic changes, and an increasing array of new transportation services competing for customers. Despite these obstacles, the transit industry continues to evolve while seeking to provide the most practical, cost-effective solutions at the local level.
In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, ASCE assigned the U.S. transit sector a grade of D-, the lowest score given to any of the 16 categories addressed by the report card. (The report included commuter rail in the transit category, whereas the 2013 report card listed commuter rail as part of the rail sector.) Chief among the problems facing transit are overdue maintenance and underinvestment, which essentially go hand in hand. "Despite increasing demand, the nation's transit systems have been chronically underfunded, resulting in aging infrastructure and a $90-billion rehabilitation backlog," the 2017 report card noted. This estimate, which covers the backlog of projects needed to attain a "state of good repair," is expected to swell to $122 billion by 2032, according to the report card.
This backlog primarily involves rail and other fixed guideway modes that require tracks and stations, as opposed to bus systems that use existing roads and bridges. For example, the report card noted that the following percentages of types of transit's physical infrastructure are not in a state of good repair: 15 percent of facilities (e.g., maintenance facilities); 17 percent of systems used for such services as power, signals, communications, and fare collecting; 35 percent of tracks and other guideway systems; and 37 percent of stations. By comparison, only 10 percent of the nation's urban bus fleet and 3 percent of the rail fleet are not in a state of good repair.
Problems associated with underinvestment and deferred maintenance affect transit providers, both small and large. "Generally, I would say transit is working fairly well in dense, large, urban metro areas," says Baruch Feigenbaum, the assistant director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit libertarian think tank based in Los Angeles. As examples, Feigenbaum points to such cities as New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago, all of which long have had extensive heavy-rail transit systems that were developed to serve heavily populated downtown cores and their surrounding suburban areas. However, "there are some real challenges" even in these cities, he notes, where the so-called legacy heavy-rail systems often have failed to receive the necessary maintenance needed to keep them in a state of good repair. As a case in point, Feigenbaum highlights the Washington, D.C., Metro system, which in recent years has experienced significant problems involving train breakdowns and other service interruptions.
Insufficient maintenance and repairs result from inadequate funding, which "continues to be a huge issue" among transit providers, says Paul Skoutelas, P.E., M.ASCE, the president and chief executive officer of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), of Washington, D.C. Underinvestment in the nation's public transportation systems is "most pronounced" in some of the large legacy transit systems, Skoutelas says. "Those systems are in dire need of more investment" to enable them to reach a state of good repair, he notes.
For this reason, APTA is seeking to secure "additional federal investment to help eat away at that state-of-good-repair backlog," Skoutelas says, along with federal funding to help transit providers that need to expand their existing systems. For its part, APTA would like to see such funding included in a potential infrastructure bill that the Trump administration and many in Congress have been advocating for more than two years but that has yet to come to fruition.
Another upcoming legislative possibility for raising additional revenues for transit involves the pending reauthorization of the nation's surface transportation program, which is scheduled to expire on September 30, 2020. Unless Congress intervenes, the Highway Trust Fund is expected to become insolvent at about the same time. This outcome would have grave consequences for the transit sector because the Highway Trust Fund provides revenues to the Mass Transit Account, the main source of federal funding for transit projects.
The next congressional reauthorization of the surface transportation program should include an increase of the federal motor fuels tax that finances the Highway Trust Fund, Skoutelas says. Such a move would help shore up the languishing trust fund, which has seen its buying power decline significantly as a result of inflation since the motor fuels tax was last increased in 1993. For its part, ASCE supports an increase in the federal motor fuels tax, as do many other organizations involved with transportation infrastructure.
Regardless of the exact source, increased federal funding will be critical to efforts to address the maintenance backlog in the transit sector, says Kimberly Slaughter, a senior vice president and the national transit and rail market sector leader for the HNTB Corp., which has its headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri. "We need in this country, on a national basis, to join together and have the federal government prioritize not only the expansion of transit services but the operations and maintenance of transit systems," Slaughter says. "We need to have some type of funding system that is sustainable, that dedicates money to maintaining" existing transit infrastructure.
Greater federal funding is particularly needed to enable the large-city legacy transit systems to return their infrastructure to a state of good repair, Slaughter says, in part because transportation problems related to these systems can result in economic effects that ripple outward far from where they occur. "We can't just sit back and say, 'Well, that's a local or regional problem,'" she maintains. "It really is a national problem that we need to look at addressing." Without greater federal assistance, large legacy systems, in particular, stand little chance of making "significant headway" in their efforts to address their backlogs of maintenance and rehabilitation needs, Slaughter says.
However, simply boosting federal funding, without changing how the funds are spent, will not solve the problem, Feigenbaum maintains. "Generally, federal funding is geared toward new construction, not maintenance," he says. Meanwhile, transit agencies sometimes experience political pressure to spend money on system expansion, rather than maintenance or rehabilitation, he notes. In such situations, federal funding only exacerbates the problem. To rectify this situation, Congress, as part of the next surface transportation reauthorization bill, "should look at providing funding for maintenance first and new capital improvements second," he says.
At the same time, more transit agencies need to adopt a "fix-it-first policy," Feigenbaum says. As the name implies, such a policy directs a transit provider to focus resources first on maintenance and repairs before conducting capital projects to expand capacity. "If federal policy focused on fix-it-first, then I think there would be a lot more transit agencies able to make the case to their political leaders that they need to work on maintenance and not new capacity," Feigenbaum says.
That said, not everyone expects the federal government to be able to solve the problem of unmet maintenance and rehabilitation needs within the transit sector, especially given the fact that the federal share for transit capital projects has declined significantly over the past few decades. "Right now, [the federal government] can't really be relied on as a sole partner to solve this backlog problem," says Joe Pulicare, P.E., M.ASCE, the president of the transportation and infrastructure sector for WSP, which has its headquarters in Montreal. Instead, the "states and the municipalities need to start looking at developing alternative dedicated funding systems," Pulicare says. "They've got to take it into their own hands." In some cases, such approaches could take the form of sales taxes, bonds, congestion funding, or fees per vehicle mile traveled, as well as fees and tolls on Uber, Lyft, and similar transportation network companies, Pulicare notes.
In the United States today, "we see a lot of creativity coming from midsize cities" in terms of developing transit solutions, Slaughter says, particularly in midsize communities surrounded by rural areas. In many cases, such communities have had to implement "blended systems" that address the differing transit needs of urban and rural populations, she says. Such approaches might feature traditional fixed-route bus systems in more densely populated urban areas, along with the coordination of more flexible, on-demand services in rural areas by government agencies or even charitable organizations.
A change in demographics in urban and suburban areas also is beginning to force more transit agencies to reconsider how they can best meet the needs of some of their older residents. In some locations, neighborhoods that once were inhabited mainly by young families with children today are primarily home to "parents aging in place," Slaughter says. As a result, the number, timing, and types of trips have changed for many residents, who no longer are ferrying children to school and other activities. Meanwhile, such residents also might face physical challenges that make it harder for them to operate their own vehicles.
Against this backdrop, transit providers have had to develop more customized services that meet the needs of these populations. In some cases, Slaughter says, communities have created what are known as point-deviation services or flex routes. Such approaches typically include a set route along which patrons may be picked up or dropped off at certain points at a given time, though customers with limited mobility have the option to be picked up or dropped off at a location not on the set route, assuming that the location is within a certain distance of the predetermined route. "These are different methods that have been employed in small urban-to-rural communities in order to provide cost-effective and efficient service to dispersed and less dense communities," Slaughter says. "Now we're finding that these same methodologies are useful in different urban markets, where we may have less dense population and people aging in place."
In much denser urban areas, particularly in the downtown core, streetcars are enjoying something of a revival. "Streetcars are an attractive mode to incorporate into central business districts," Pulicare says. Such systems have been successful in downtown areas that are experiencing significant economic expansion and boast attractions that draw tourists and local patrons alike. Pulicare points to the streetcar network operated by the Regional Transit Authority in New Orleans as an example of a well-run operation that improves mobility in a central business district. "It's an amazing system," he says.
As for transit approaches used to move people within a radius of about 25 mi beyond the urban core, light-rail is "working quite well," Pulicare notes. Light-rail systems completed in recent years in such cities as Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle, and Charlotte, North Carolina, have "done very well," he says. "They've actually exceeded expectations." Meanwhile, some cities that opened their light-rail systems in the 1990s have had "remarkable growth" recently, Pulicare notes. As an example, he offers the 93 mi long light-rail system with 64 stations operated by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). "Dallas has an incredible system," he says. "Nobody thought mass transit in Texas would ever happen. It's done quite well." Similarly, the Regional Transportation District in Denver and the MetroLink system in St. Louis have flourished, Pulicare says.
More broadly, the systems that are "seeing the most success are the ones that are taking a bird's-eye view of all the transportation modes" and working to optimize their various transportation options, Pulicare notes. For example, these systems have begun coordinating the schedules of their feeder bus and light-rail systems, so that riders can transfer as seamlessly as possible between the two modes with only limited wait times.
Unfortunately, the growth in light-rail systems sometimes comes at a cost to those most reliant on transit, Feigenbaum says. "Because building and maintaining rail lines can be expensive, a lot of transit agencies have cut their bus service," he notes. "This has resulted in a loss of ridership, especially among the transit-dependent folks who need the service the most."
Cost considerations are among the many factors that have helped boost the prominence of bus rapid transit (BRT), a transportation mode that is gaining acceptance in this country as more cities seek to provide a transit alternative that is less expensive than light-rail. BRT is a "high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast and efficient service that may include dedicated lanes, busways, traffic signal priority, off-board fare collection, elevated platforms and enhanced stations," according to the website of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Until relatively recently, BRT has suffered from something of an image problem in this country. BRT "has struggled in the U.S. to be recognized for its value and its appropriate application," Slaughter says. "Not every geographic location has the right characteristics to support a rail system. Sometimes a bus service is a really good option." In such cases, BRT is "definitely a tool that can improve mobility, provide people with what they feel is a reliable service, and provide a lot of the amenities that people traditionally associate with a rail system," Slaughter says.
Much like light-rail networks, successful BRT systems provide a well-branded service that includes helpful signage to guide riders, Slaughter says. At the same time, BRT's more substantial stations improve greatly upon the sign on a pole that constitutes many traditional bus stops. In fact, properly designed, comfortable BRT stations "can attract economic development the same way a rail station does," Slaughter notes. When offered as a "premium service," BRT "becomes a whole different part of a community," she says, "while still providing the flexibility that is needed."
This flexibility is what is propelling more cities nationwide to adopt BRT, Skoutelas says. "Bus rapid transit is a very popular investment form for transit expansion," he says. "It exists now in several dozen transit communities around the country, large and small." A key advantage of BRT is that it can be configured in multiple ways, depending on the different needs of an individual community. (To read about a BRT success story in Richmond, Virginia, see page 20.) "It can be very minimal kinds of improvements that are low in cost, all the way up to exclusive busways," Skoutelas says. As a result, BRT is a "very appealing option for many communities," he notes, including those that traditionally have been more autocentric in terms of their transportation focus.
Indianapolis is about to join the ranks of U.S. cities that have BRT systems. The Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp., commonly known as IndyGo, is currently implementing the $96-million first phase of the Red Line, a 13-plus mi long BRT route that will include 28 stations. Extending from the Broad Ripple neighborhood at its northern end to the University of Indianapolis at its southern terminus, the Red Line is expected to begin operations this summer. When complete, the system will operate 20 hours per day, every day, arriving every 10 minutes during peak times, said Vanesa Rivera, the external communications coordinator for IndyGo. (Rivera provided written responses to questions from
To expedite the boarding process, riders will pay fares in advance. Along approximately 60 percent of the Red Line route, the system's electric buses will travel within their own dedicated lanes, avoiding congestion. Buses also will receive priority at certain traffic signals.
Situated within a densely populated area that is home to many businesses, the Red Line is designed to connect neighborhoods, places of employment, and cultural attractions, while predominantly serving areas that have many transit users.
CDM Smith, of Boston, provided the overall design for the Red Line, Rivera said. The project is being constructed by two contractors: the Rieth-Riley Construction Co. Inc., of Goshen, Indiana, and F.A. Wilhelm Construction Co. Inc., which has offices in Indianapolis and Lafayette, Indiana.
Ultimately, IndyGo intends for the Red Line to extend for a total of 37.5 mi. Phase 2 will continue the line for another 16.5 mi to the north, while phase 3 will extend it to the south by another 7.4 mi. However, funding has yet to be identified for phases 2 and 3. Meanwhile, IndyGo also plans to open in 2021 the 14.8 mi long Purple Line BRT route connecting Indianapolis and Lawrence, Indiana, followed in 2022 by the Blue Line, a 24 mi long BRT route extending from the Indianapolis International Airport to the west to the town of Cumberland, Indiana, to the east.
In larger urban areas with denser populations, commuter rail sometimes presents an attractive transit option. Such was the case for Fort Worth, Texas, which in January witnessed the start of operations for TEXRail, the approximately $1-billion commuter rail system operated by Trinity Metro, the provider of public transportation services in Tarrant County, Texas. TEXRail extends 27.2 mi from downtown Fort Worth to Terminal B at the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport. The system includes seven new stations and two existing stations, which are shared with the Trinity Railway Express service, another commuter rail line in downtown Fort Worth.
Trinity Metro implemented the TEXRail system "based on anticipated growth projections in population and employment in Tarrant County," says Richey Thompson, P.E., the chief engineer for TEXRail. By year's end, TEXRail is expected to serve 8,000 passengers per day, a figure that is anticipated to increase to 14,000 daily riders by 2035.
From the outset of the planning process in 2005, Trinity Metro sought to alleviate future traffic problems and improve environmental conditions locally. Goals of the project were to "improve overall mobility between major activity centers, provide multimodal travel solutions, help improve overall traffic congestion and air quality, and provide a transportation solution that would integrate seamlessly with other transportation networks in the region," Thompson says. To the latter point, the TEXRail system connects with the Trinity Railway Express and stops at Fort Worth's intermodal transportation center, which has a rental car service as well as Greyhound bus and Amtrak rail facilities. At Terminal A at the DFW Airport, the TEXRail system links to DART's light-rail network.
Of the project's overall cost of $1.034 billion, the federal government paid 51.9 percent, mostly in the form of grants from the FTA's New Starts program and its Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program, Thompson says. The remaining 48.1 percent of the project's costs were provided by local sources, including sales taxes, local partners, existing funds from Trinity Metro, funds from the state of Texas, Tarrant County bond proceeds, and contributions from the DFW Airport.
The design of the main TEXRail project was led by a joint venture comprising Parsons, of Pasadena, California, and Tran-Systems, which has its headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri. Construction was conducted by a joint venture comprising Archer Western, of Atlanta, and the Herzog Contracting Corp., of St. Joseph, Missouri. Thompson notes that the DFW Airport was responsible for the design and construction of the Terminal B Station, while TEXRail was responsible for the design and construction of the guideway and track within the station.
The "most complex part of the project" was the portion dubbed by project participants as the Hole in the Wall, says Chad Gartner, P.E., M.ASCE, a senior project manager for TranSystems. Located just east of downtown Fort Worth, the site consisted of three different grade-separated structures. The lower level-which comprised a single rail track used by the Trinity Railway Express, Amtrak, and Union Pacific Railroad-passed beneath four separate freight rail bridges, which were used by the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads. The freight rail bridges, in turn, extended under a highway bridge that carried Spur 280, a roadway owned and maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation.
For TEXRail to be able to operate in this location, the lower level had to be widened to accommodate a second track. However, doing so would require replacing the freight rail bridges at the middle level and making a major modification to the Spur 280 bridge above them, but rail and highway operations could not be interrupted except for certain limited periods. "That's the reason that this was so complicated," Gartner says.
Before widening the freight rail bridges at the middle level, the project team had to relocate existing utilities and add several retaining walls in the physically constrained site. The team then constructed a temporary twotrack bridge to ensure that four rail tracks would remain in operation through the middle level of the project at all times. Next, two of the existing freight rail bridges were removed and replaced with a longer, permanent two-track structure. Then the two remaining freight rail bridges were removed and replaced with another permanent two-track bridge, and the temporary structure was dismantled.
But widening the rail bridges at the second level necessitated the replacement of an existing straddle bent supporting the Spur 280 above. "We had to replace that with a straddle bent that was approximately twenty-five feet longer than the existing one," Gartner says. To this end, the contractor constructed temporary shoring towers, jacked up the bridge by about half an inch, pulled out the existing bent, and installed the new, longer bent on previously constructed columns, all within two planned 36-hour freight railroad shutdowns. This operation proved to be "one of the most challenging" aspects of the already complicated Hole in the Wall project, Gartner says. Indeed, the Hole in the Wall "was one of the first things we started working on," he says, "and it was one of the last things we finished."
"It's a great time of change," Skoutelas says, referencing the many new mobility options that have entered the public arena recently. "I've been in this industry for over forty years now, and this is the most change that I, and many of us in the industry, have seen in our entire careers."
In some cities, the sudden plethora of mobility choices, especially easy-to-use, relatively inexpensive ride-hailing services, has lured riders away from transit, Pulicare says. "Mobility is becoming a big issue in this country, because people want to travel on their own schedule," he says. "People want to travel with real-time information, and they want integrated payment systems and planning platforms."
Although mass transit always will remain the more efficient option for moving large numbers of people, the industry must find ways to work with the mobility newcomers, Pulicare says, because the public will want to be able to travel seamlessly from one option to the other. "Eventually transit agencies are going to have to partner in some way with these private mobility providers," he says. "They'll start to work together more, instead of competing as they are now."
Skoutelas agrees. "We see our job as transit is to work with all of those interests and to figure out how best we can serve the varied needs of our communities," he says. For example, he notes that ride-hailing services can offer a workable solution for the longstanding "first-mile, last-mile problem," that is, the inability of traditional mass transit options to accommodate the first or last portions of many passenger trips.
As for the much ballyhooed shift to autonomous vehicles in the not-too-distant future, Skoutelas says that he sees such a change as an "opportunity for transit" rather than a threat. For starters, bus and BRT lines make "excellent candidates" for autonomous vehicle operations, and they could be used by transit agencies as part of shuttle operations, he notes. More broadly, simply replacing traditional automobiles with private autonomous vehicles will not reduce congestion. "The focus has to be on moving people, not vehicles," he says.
And that, quite simply, is the job of mass transit. And so, even as it is buffeted by the winds of change, the transit sector can be expected to remain relevant long into the future, continuing to provide the backbone of an increasingly varied multimodal transportation system.