By Lyle V. Harris
MARTA, the backbone of metro Atlanta’s once-and-future transit network, is facing a $2.2 billion backlog of assets in need of replacement such as vehicles, systems and other infrastructure to meet the region’s growing transportation needs. While it’s not much comfort, MARTA is hardly alone in that respect.
In its report, “The Economic Cost of Failing to Modernize Public Transportation,” the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found that seven of the nation’s largest transit systems (including MARTA) have a combined $50 billion in repair backlogs. Nationally, it’s estimated that the transit infrastructure backlog is at least $90 billion. As that number grows, there are economic consequences associated with the status quo that shouldn’t be ignored.
The APTA report projects that failing to address transit repair backlogs could cost businesses nationally about $340 billion in sales over the next six years. Such inaction could translate into a $180 billion drop in gross national product, a $109 billion cumulative loss in household income and result in 160,000 fewer jobs during the same period. These projected losses are a product of decreases in efficiency and productivity from public transit delays and disruptions.
In MARTA’s case, the APTA report estimated that a lack of timely investment in infrastructure could lead to an $8.4 billion decrease in Gross Domestic Product to local businesses, a related $2.7 billion dip in household income and about 4,000 fewer jobs in the area.
The report examines the negative feedback loop that poorly maintained transit systems create; as buses and trains break down resulting in service delays, ridership drops as more people drive to work, which in turn increases traffic congestion, depresses commerce and, ultimately, degrades the quality-of-life that has made metro Atlanta a hotbed of corporate investment and relocation.
After interviewing real estate brokers and corporate recruiters, APTA researchers found that, “…it is not uncommon for site selection consultants and managers to actually ride public transit when visiting prospective communities to assess not only the existence of but also the quality of the public transit experience… America’s ability to compete with countries around the world depends on the productivity of its cities and metropolitan regions and, in turn, the success of regional public transit systems.”
Quiet as it’s kept, MARTA has been at the forefront of the state-of-good-repair issue for years, and the agency is mentioned favorably in APTA’s report.
Recognizing the importance of ensuring that the transit system remains “safe, secure and sustainable,” MARTA in 2016 elevated David Springstead to Assistant General Manager of Capital Programs and Development, with a prime focus on furthering its state of good repair program.
Springstead said MARTA has reduced its asset backlog over the last decade and has consistently dedicated over 80 percent of its capital program budget to State of Good Repair, which amounts to roughly $228 million in Fiscal Year 2018.
“We knew that expansion of regional transit was inevitable and that we needed to be ready to expand,” Springstead said in response to questions from The SaportaReport. “MARTA is one of the agencies that has been leading the industry in asset management and investing heavily in critical infrastructure, vehicles and systems.”
MARTA and other large transit systems are struggling to keep pace with repairs but they can’t do it alone — nor should they. The Trump administration, however, has proposed cutting as much as $52 billion from the federal programs that states, municipalties and local transit systems have relied on to maintain and upgrade their infrastructure.
The administration has been touting a 10-year, $1.5 trillion infrastructure investment plan. But the reality is that only about $200 billion of that promised funding would originate with the federal government, that likely would be split among transit systems, airports, roads and bridges.
Also disappointing is a White House plan to reduce the federal government’s overall role in funding for transit infrastructure improvements from historic highs of 80 percent to a cap of 20 percent.
With so much at stake here in Atlanta and elsewhere, we must insist that Congress steps in to protect and preserve transit assets that will keep communities and our economy healthy and prosperous for the long haul.