Talking Transit: National Summit hopes to turn dialogue into action

When it comes to saving mass transit from further decline, the National Transit Summit held May 18th in Boston brought the key issues to the table. It also got the right people in the room.  With two top officials from the Obama administration, a US Congressman, four transit chiefs from among our nation’s largest cities, and a host of stakeholders, the day held an unprecedented opportunity to begin solving this national problem.   


The idea behind the forum, hosted by MassINC and the MBTA Advisory Board, was to shed light on a little-known phenomenon; that crumbling systems, service disruptions, and widening deficits are issues befalling all major transit systems around the country and not just the much maligned T, which most Bostonians see as a financial mess of its own making.  That misperception was cleared up with a rare panel discussion among big city transit chiefs, who poured out their parallel woes. 


“We’re pretty much in 20th century armor trying to do a 21st century fight,” said Beverly A. Scott, head of Altanta’s MARTA, (as quoted from the Boston Globe) as she and her colleagues from Boston, Chicago,  Philadelphia and DC reported out their respective lists of fiscal challenges.  Among their complaints: stop asking to expand when we can’t pay for what we have. 


At the very least, the transit chiefs went before the appropriate audience.  In his keynote address, U.S. Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff made clear that bringing the existing and deteriorating systems to industry standard (state of good repair) was the first priority of the Obama administration. 


“Fully 29% of all transit assets – rail, bus and paratransit – are in poor or marginal condition,” he said. “If you can’t afford your current footprint, does expanding that underfunded footprint really advance the President’s goals for cutting oil use and greenhouse gases?”  


Rogoff made news – and responded to Atlanta’s Dr. Scott – when he announced that the Transit Administration, in a new study, has pegged the backlog of maintenance and repair projects to be $78 billion for all of the nation’s systems. This is an increase from $50 billion for the largest seven systems – a figure that Scott had said previously in the day did not fully represent the national need.


As synchronized as the officials seemed to be on problems and priorities, there was less clarity on where the money would come from.  The chiefs talked of more federal support for operating budgets, and certainly US Representative John Olver and Obama’s Undersecretary of Transportation Roy Kienitz strongly expressed the federal government’s support for mass transit, citing its contribution to the national economy and the global environment.  The most tangible discussion, however, came from the panelists.


In two additional panels – one on business community buy-in and one on next steps –  local and national figures such as Larry Cankro, of the Boston Red Sox, and Robert Puentes from the Brookings Institution, explored private sector avenues for support and a myriad of creative financing strategies tried elsewhere in the world. 


One of the most important “takeaways” from the Summit was the driving factor behind it: the American public needs to become more aware of both the value and the cost of mass transit.      


 About MassINC – MassINC is an independent think tank using nonpartisan research, civic journalism, and public forums to stimulate debate and shape public policy.  Through the MassINC Associate Board, our mission is to build a new generation of civically engaged leaders for the Commonwealth. Board members will serve as advisors to MassINC’s research, journalism, and civic events/programs. The Board evolved from MassINC’s successful RealTalk program and will expand upon the theme of engagement among young people in the Commonwealth. 

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