General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has a warning: If you think things on Metro are bad now, just wait to see what would happen if the transit agency loses its federal funding.
Even more speed restrictions. Maintenance work scheduled at a plodding pace. Bouts of single-tracking that would last for months instead of weeks. Think of it as SafeTrack: Part II — the longer, slower version.
“The issues that we’ve been going through will be longer and deeper,” Wiedefeld said earlier this week, speaking at a news conference organized by the American Public Transportation Association. “The customer, what they have had to go through in the last year — could you imagine if we didn’t have the finances to do what we’re doing now, and we had to stretch that over further time? What impacts that would have on customers?”
That’s what the future would hold for the Washington region if the federal budget axes the current levels of funding allocated to Metro, he said.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been the prime example — probably throughout the country — of what happens when you don’t invest in infrastructure,” Wiedefeld added, “and you get to the point where you have to impact customers and the customer service experience just to do the basics.”
Wiedefeld’s dramatic forecast was a significant departure from his usually measured tones. His comments came at APTA’s legislative conference in downtown D.C., where the heads of public transit systems from around the country made the case for why their agencies deserve a piece of the funding pie in President Trump’s forthcoming trillion-dollar infrastructure package — and addressed the very real possibility that they will see funding to their agencies dramatically reduced in coming years.
Though there is a long history of bipartisan support for national infrastructure investment, Republicans have traditionally been more wary of using that money to pay for public transit.
The Republican Party platform released last summer argued that public transit agencies should be eliminated from the list of Highway Trust Fund recipients, arguing that mass transit “should not be the business of the federal government” because it is “an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population.”
Some transit leaders have expressed optimism that Trump’s package will include a sizable apportionment for mass transit systems. On Monday, Trump met with Wiedefeld and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to talk about preparations for the looming snowstorm — a sign to some that Trump has an eye for the role that infrastructure plays in the day-to-day lives of Americans.
— President Trump (@POTUS) March 13, 2017
“We’re in an era where we have many issues that divide us, but I think we can agree — and hopefully the president and Congress can reach an agreement — that infrastructure and public transit is one of those issues that can unite us,” said Richard White, APTA’s acting president and chief executive officer.
APTA contends that transit investment is a long-term spark for economic growth. According to their research, Trump could create 10 million jobs over a 10-year period by investing one-fifth of the trillion-dollar infrastructure package in mass transit.
But even with those glowing projections from transit lobbyists, there is significant cause for alarm at transit agencies around the country about the potential for de-funding. At Monday’s news conference, Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter painted a picture of his own agency’s future with big cuts in federal funding — one that looked quite similar to Metro’s.
“That means less reliable service. That means additional slow zones. That means additional construction work. That means delays for our customers,” Carter said. “At the end of the day, my ability to provide reliable service that our customers want and expect is directly tied to the ability to have the funding to support the service that we provide.”
Eric Wolf, general manager of Altoona Metro Transit in central Pennsylvania, said that small agencies like his own are already making do with less-than-optimal equipment. He’s seeking a boost in money from the federal government to make basic upgrades.
“I have six buses back home that are more than 40 years old,” Wolf said. “Most of us, including little old Altoona — and apparently, big bad Chicago — will be using those funds to get our fleets and our facilities back to a state of good repair.”
And Michael Terry, president and chief executive officer of the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation, said that the asks from public transit agencies are relatively modest. He pointed to recent investments made by his agency to increase the size of the bus fleet, shifting from the 86th-largest in the country to the 68th-largest fleet. But, he points out, Indianapolis is America’s 13th-largest metropolitan area.
“It’s not like we’re skyrocketing to a Cadillac system,” Terry said. “We’re rightsizing and putting mass transit where it’s going to be most productive.”
But even as public transit agencies are gearing up for a potential fight on federal funding, they’re also hopeful about another frontier where they may have more agreement with Trump and Republican members of Congress: federal regulations. Reducing red tape and streamlining the execution of big projects would help save major agencies millions of dollars in expenses for capital projects, officials at the press conference said.
Terry cited a common joke among transit administrators who bemoan the years that it takes to approve, launch and complete a major endeavor like the construction of a light-rail line.
Want to know how to expedite the process?
“It’s simple,” he said. “Don’t ask the federal government for anything.”