Ridership on U.S. subways, light and commuter rail, buses, and other forms of urban mass transit is on the rise. In recent years, the number of passenger miles traveled has increased 39 percent, from 39.8 billion in 1995 to 55.2 billion in 2008. Transit rail passenger miles grew even more strongly over this period, from 11.4 billion to 18.9 billion—a 66 percent gain.
But the transit system is increasingly stressed. Since 1995, the number of transit rail vehicles grew by only 20 percent. But the average trip length has decreased slightly, meaning that existing capacity is being used more and more heavily. A substantial share of transit vehicles—trains and buses—are ageing and in need of replacement. Several analyses (for example, here, here, and here) have been prepared over the last few years to estimate the scope and likely cost.
Last month, a new National State of Good Repair Assessment Study by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) updated and broadened earlier assessments. The FTA examined transit systems with a combined 120,000 vehicles and found that 29 percent of all vehicles and facilities were in poor or marginal condition, including 26 percent of rail systems and 41 percent of bus systems.
The maintenance backlog now runs to a combined $77.7 billion. In addition, normal replacement needs require spending another $14.4 billion per year, on average. Actual spending in 2009, at about $12–13 billion, fell short. (See Figure.) Eliminating the backlog, and keeping up with regular annual replacements, would require $27.3 billion annually over six years (but only $20.9 billion if spread over 12 years, or $18.3 billion over 20 years).
Capital investments in transit have been on the rise—from $12.4 billion in 2005 to $17.4 billion in 2008, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). And the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) included an additional $8.4 billion, of which $2.4 billion went to the purchase or rehabilitation of 12,136 buses, rail cars, and paratransit vans (and the remainder to refurbishing of facilities and other equipment).
The ARRA funds are a shot in the arm, but still not enough to deal with the maintenance backlog, as a recent example demonstrates. An FTA competitive grant program in April to modernize bus fleets made available $775 million, yet applications of more than $4.2 billion surpassed available money more than five-fold.