As usual, the Transport Politic has a good survey of the confronting speech by US Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff. People who are in this business because they love trains will find it especially disturbing. Read the whole thing.
Rogoff's gist is: We need to slow down on constructing new rail transit, so that we can focus more on our massive deficits in operations and maintenance.
As someone who values mobility, and who views technologies as tools rather than goals, I obviously have some sympathy with this view, though I prefer to be a little more nuanced than Rogoff is:
Let's start with honesty:
Supporters of public transit must be willing to share some simple truths that folks don't want to hear. One is this -- Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive.
Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a "special" bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.
Once you've got special buses, it turns out that busways are cheap. Take that paint can and paint a designated bus lane on the street system. Throw in signal preemption, and you can move a lot of people at very little cost compared to rail.
A little honesty about the differences between bus and rail can have some profound effects.
Well yes, I've tried to cultivate a bit of that honesty. And I agree with Matthew Yglesias that if you wanted to create a lot of mobility options quickly, expanding bus services is the most efficient way to do that across most of North America. Obviously, there are still projects that have to be full subways (Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles and Second Avenue in New York come to mind) and several others where light rail is the better capacity choice, but most of America is not on those lines.
On the other hand, Rogoff's description of "successful" bus service is much too cynical. Successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) isn't just a bus painted a different color; it's a service designed for high speed, frequency, and reliability that truly matches what a rail service would provide in those terms. By and large, North Americans still have to go overseas to see such a thing.
So an FTA Administrator will need to do more than this to trigger a real Bus Rapid Transit renaissance. He'll have to suggest how FTA can enforce principles of good corridor planning using its funding as leverage, so that BRT can finally cease to be perceived in the US as a tool for (a) channelling transit funds into road construction or (b) compromising rapid transit for the sake of private cars. I wonder if FTA also has a role in pushing back on the escalation of construction costs.
Still, the focus on operations and maintenance is welcome. Rogoff is right that infrastructure maintenance tends to be neglected -- in transit as well as in roads and bridges -- and that this leads to increased risk of severe accidents and fatalities. Given the impossible situation that most state and local governments are in these days, I'm not sure where this money comes from. On the other hand, I'm sure the Obama administration is concerned about "moral hazard" in gradually shifting more and more responsibility to the Federal government. Ultimately, the debate about how much to fund transit and where to find that money is a debate best had locally, in the context of the problems and needs of a specific city.