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Economy & Business

Communities Lack All The Funds Needed For Transit Repairs

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in Washington, as you know when you visited, public transportation...

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

I know.

GREENE: ...Is just stressful. The subway system, the Metro - it just always breaks down.

MONTAGNE: That is happening, David, also in other major cities as well. It can be dangerous. It was in Washington, D.C., and it's certainly expensive. Late last year, Congress passed a $305 billion bill called the Fast Act, which will help fund some repairs.

But when I spoke with transit expert Robert Puentes, he pointed out that even with the Fast Act funds, there will be massive shortfalls for repairing transportation infrastructure. And it's not just the old transit systems that are having trouble. The middle-aged ones are, too.

ROBERT PUENTES: Washington, Miami, San Francisco, where these systems grew up after the advent of the automobile, so after the interstate highway system, after cars were ubiquitous in cities and metropolitan areas - these systems have struggled in this - kind of their middle age.

They haven't really focused on the rehabilitation and the maintenance and the upkeep of these systems. And so they've struggled between the need to expand and grow and the need to reinvest in the system.

MONTAGNE: And then to the oldest of old transit systems, New York's famous subway system, it is saying now that it is going to shut down an entire line between Manhattan and Brooklyn for possibly 18 months straight. I mean, that is huge in New York.

PUENTES: Right. What's happening now in New York with the shutdown of the L train is because of the extraordinary circumstances around Superstorm Sandy that went in and really made the need to fix that whole line a major priority.

MONTAGNE: Superstorm Sandy - that was three and a half years ago at this point. Why is the New York system just now getting around to being looked at to be repaired?

PUENTES: The subway system in New York operates at a magnitude greater than any other system in the country. I mean, the L line itself just carries about 225,000 people under the river every single day. So to give you an example, that's about half of the entire system in San Francisco. So in New York, because the system is this legacy system, it's existed for so long, it is so fundamentally integrated into the fabric of that city that these decisions are of much greater magnitude in a place like New York. And then inconveniencing 225,000 people a day is a very different proposition than it is in other places.

But nevertheless, the point is still the same. These enormous needs that these metro systems have and the backlog of maintenance and rehabilitation that has been growing for years and years and years - estimates of 60, $75 billion just to get these systems back up to a state of good repair - it's a huge challenge for this country.

MONTAGNE: Well, a huge challenge in a time when it seems like there's a resistance to allocating funds for this.

PUENTES: So because these challenges are so enormous and because we look at this and say, well, this has to be something only the federal government can fix because it's so big, the reality is that the federal government has probably done what they're going to do for the short term. They did pass a five-year bill last December. It was basically the status quo. It didn't really change very much. It didn't really increase the funds that cities and metropolitan areas were looking for.

Most of the money, actually, now does come from the states and the localities. But what's happening in these places - they're going to the voters on Election Day and they're asking them to approve things like sales tax referenda or gas tax referenda, in order, specifically, to improve these systems. And when voters are presented with that kind of information, they're voting for these things. Eighty percent of these things pass on Election Day because it's a very optimistic, positive and affirmative message, and folks know what they're getting.

MONTAGNE: Well, are you saying, then, that there is a move to, in fact, get those funds - I mean, pass taxes and do what needs to be done - that that's going to happen?

PUENTES: There's a clear recognition that there's no cavalry coming from Washington. They kind of gave it the office. And so it is up to these cities and Metros to figure out what to do next. And that is what they're doing. They're looking at each other. They're trying to understand, well, how did you do this in Denver working with a private partner to get this thing built? How can we replicate that in other parts of the country? How did you go to the voters twice in Los Angeles and pass things in the middle of the recession? What were the messages that were used? The cities and the metro areas of the states are starting to learn from one another what the best practices are, what the worst practices are and how can we get something that works in these different places?

MONTAGNE: Robert Puentes is president of the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C. Thank you for joining us.

PUENTES: Well, thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.