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After decades of underfunding, America's public transit systems are failing

broken infrastructure
Posted at 11:35 AM, Aug 30, 2022

BOSTON, Mass. — Public transit systems across the country are reaching a breaking point, as decades of underfunding are now causing serious safety and maintenance issues leading to delays and even closures, impacting millions of people every day.

In Boston, Massachusetts, officials from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority recently implemented a 30-day shutdown of the state's Orange Line, a subway line that runs through the heart of Boston and carries an estimated 100,000 people each day. But not a single train is moving right now as crews work to make emergency repairs after a slew of safety failures, including a 43-year-old train that recently caught fire on a bridge prompting one rider to jump into a river below.

"It’s a huge deal but you have to get at the level of people affected to see it," said Josh Ostroff with Transportation for Massachusetts.

Transit advocates nationwide are saying the crisis playing out in Boston could become the new reality for millions of other Americans as aging infrastructure begins to break down.

"You start to see the failures in our systems," said Mike Schipper with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Each year, ASCE gives public transit a report card. In 2021, America received a D- due in part to a $176 billion backlog in unfunded projects and repairs.

"What’s happened around the country is we’re trying to do our best to put service on the streets every day," Schipper said.

The failure to address even the most basic infrastructure needs is leading to catastrophic failures and shutdowns like the one now playing out in Boston.

"This really speaks to a structural, long-term deficit," said Richard Dimino with the group A Better City.

Even in cities like Denver, where the light rail was built less than 30 years ago, advocates say it's important to remember that newer transit systems are no longer brand new. Trains have a useful life of about 30 years and buses should only be on the road for 12. But decades of underfunding means cities have stretched those years out far beyond what’s often safe.

"The ability to keep them on the street is difficult because they break down a lot," Mike Schipper said.

At the end of the day, it is riders paying the price for America not paying up for transit. Advocates are worried once riders leave public transit because of unreliability they won’t come back.

"The lesson to be learned from all of this is to take care of the state of good repair and invest in good repair," Richard Dimino said.

The Infrastructure Bill passed last year added $39 billion to help fund transit projects over the next five years. Industry advocates say it's a step in the right direction but still a fraction of what's really needed.