Inflated federal funding for the capital costs of transit projects brings about wasted spending, poor planning and poor service for transit riders in the United States.
Exhibit A: San Francisco’s T-Third line. At a capital cost of nearly $1 billion, this abomination of low-speed transit stupidity reminds the city of its pitiful existence every year like a recurring herpes sore. The federally inflated project bred its present operating costs which are significantly higher than most other alternatives for this corridor (including the 15 bus line it replaced).
Exhibit B: Pittsburgh’s planned North Shore Connector LRT Line. Without a doubt, Pittsburgh needs more transit (and, gasp, maybe even expanded personal auto capacity on its roadways). But, the Pitt wants to be a world-class city and, of course, world-class cities have subways! 80% of the nearly $500 million in capital costs will be borne by the federal guv. Let’s not consider other alternatives with lower capital costs, lower operating costs and equal levels of service (BRT, surface LRT) and instead vouch for the priciest option in the book – digging!
Here’s the problem: Why go for an efficient, low-cost option when you have so much federal money to spend? It’s hard to turn money down. The easy availability of federal funding for unnecessarily costly capital intensive projects breeds severe shortsightedness. High capital cost projects are almost always associated with high operating costs.
Federal funding should address transit’s REAL need: bleeding operating budgets. Instead of funding a T-Third disaster, MUNI could have used the $500 million in federal funds much better if it were allowed to invest them in a “MUNI Operating Foundation.” Returns of about 10% each year would yield $50 million per year, almost all of MUNI’s operating shortfall in the past few years and projected into the future (Source).
We need federally funded transit. I’m not arguing for less total funds, in fact, I think we need a significant increase in government transit spending. We simply need a system that rewards efficient transit systems, instead of the present financing model that encourages exorbitant capital spending with poor future planning and insufficient funding for recurring operating costs.