Underinvestment Led to Transit Woes

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Washington D.C.’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)—initially opened around the same time in the 1970s—are facing challenges of being underfunded and ill-equipped to handle the needs of the populations they serve today. In their own ways, each is drawing attention to the negative effects of deferred maintenance.

In mid-March, WMATA’s new General Manager Paul Wiedefeld closed the system on a weekday to make emergency inspections and repairs. This unprecedented move exhibited a dedication to and focus on safety. As it should be. Civil engineers, as stewards of the nation’s infrastructure, take an oath to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. And one of the Report Card’s key grading criteria is safety. Wiedefeld announced he is now working to evaluate the system and identify the most pressing maintenance needs and devising a plan to address them.

The equation to how we got to this place (and to a “D+” GPA for infrastructure more broadly) is simple. Underinvestment + lack of maintenance = deficient infrastructure. BART’s twitter earned attention when it made these points in response to frustrated travelers. One tweet read “This is our reality” because the system was designed to move far fewer people and many components of the system have reached the end of their useful design life.

When a system is frequently delayed, or has to close for emergency repairs the cost to the economy becomes very real. We often talk about how we only notice infrastructure when it’s not working. Well, for riders of BART and D.C. Metro that’s far too often. In some ways, the users in those cities are the “lucky” ones however, compared to the 45% of the U.S. population who don’t have reliable access to transit at all. Between these two truths, the needs are blatant.

Large systems in major metropolitan areas, such as BART and WMATA, need funding from the local, state, and federal levels to address the backlog of needs. As more people choose to live in urban areas, the ability to have transportation choices and move efficiently on public transit becomes all the more important. The time to start thinking about how these systems work for the next 40 years is today. And the time to start investing in those systems was yesterday.

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