The Metro Crash: A Nation's Aging Transit System

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Yuri Gripas / REUTERS

People work at the scene where rush-hour Metro trains crashed in Washington, D.C., on June 22

Investigators are still sorting through the wreckage of Monday's crash of two Metro rail cars in Washington, D.C., the deadliest in the system's 33-year history, which killed nine people and injured scores of others. Federal officials said on Tuesday that the train that rear-ended another was an older model that lacked equipment that might have helped avert the collision and, according to the Washington Post, had been overdue for needed brake work.

The D.C. Metro is hardly the only one in the U.S. with an aging fleet. Public-transit advocates in many major cities face a similar problem: an aging, underfunded transit system struggling to safely ferry ever larger numbers of riders. "This does draw attention to the fact that we need to invest a lot more in our transit system," says Deron Lovass, the federal transportation director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Our highway system is world class, but we've neglected public transit along the same way."

This spring the Federal Transit Administration gave marginal or poor ratings to more than a third of the equipment of the largest rail transit agencies in the U.S. To replace the nation's elderly equipment and finish station rehabilitations, it would cost roughly $50 billion; keeping the updated system in good repair afterward would run nearly $6 billion a year.

However, that money is found nowhere in the federal budget — and not even in the stimulus bill, which dedicated more than $8 billion to transit capital improvements. In Washington, Metro officials said they have wanted to replace outdated cars, which make up more than a quarter of the total system, but couldn't for lack of funds. "The Metro, like most of our larger public-transit system, has suffered from a lack of public resources," says David Goldberg, the communications director for the transit advocacy group Transportation for America.

Even as national public-transit ridership hits levels not seen since the 1950s — the decade when the new interstate-highway system began siphoning travelers off trains — federal funding has not risen in step, leaving the biggest systems struggling to pay for the very capital projects that could improve performance and safety. Meanwhile, the major U.S. cities that are most dependent on public transit — such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington — receive a progressively smaller percentage of the federal funding that is available. The combination of increased ridership — triggered at least in part by higher gas prices, which are unlikely to drop over the long run — and aging infrastructure "is stressing the transit system to the breaking point," says Goldberg.

Traditionally there has been an imbalance at the heart of transportation funding: highways get billions, and public transit gets the scraps. But that may change. This week Minnesota Representative Jim Oberstar — the Democrat who runs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — unveiled his $500 billion, six-year draft bill to overhaul the nation's transportation system. Though the bill is still nebulous, analysts say it's a considerably more transit-friendly bill than Congress has produced in the past, pouring $100 billion into public transit. New transportation bills are authorized only once every six years, and there's a real sense that this year — with a convergence of concerns over congestion, climate change and gas prices — could be a watershed moment for transit, just as the creation of the interstate-highway system in the 1950s put the U.S. on the road to becoming a car-loving nation. "We need to drastically increase the overall investment level for transportation infrastructure, but especially for transit's share," says Lovass.

The problem is that it's not clear how Oberstar's draft bill, which transit advocates argue still needs to be strengthened, will be fully funded, and the Obama Administration has urged a more modest bill in the short term. It's clear, however, that if the nation has any real interest in reducing driving, unclogging our roads and cutting back on the carbon emissions that come from transportation, we need to get serious about overhauling our antiquated public-transit system — and that will cost billions. "Failing to fix this will be unacceptable," says Goldberg.

Although public transit is aging, it's worth noting that it is not unsafe — crashes like the one in D.C. are an anomaly, and statistically, riding a train is far safer than driving. Still, failing to shore up transit is an invitation to risk, and while accidents may be infrequent, as the Metro crash may show, they can be deadly.