Smart Track: How New Transit Systems Can Avoid the Mistakes of Aging Infrastructure

by Rosa Trieu
- May 17 2016 - 4 min read
transit systems train through city infrastructure badge
Image Composite: Micke Tong

Peter Rogoff is seeing a typical 20-minute commute become a 90-minute commute in bad weather. That’s why the CEO of Sound Transit, a commuter train, rail, and bus service for the Greater Seattle area, is preparing for traffic that will only worsen by 2040, when the population of the central Puget Sound region is expected to grow by 1 million people. Nationwide, the U.S. population is expected to grow by about 70 million in the same time frame.

For Rogoff—the former Senate-confirmed undersecretary of policy for the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as a former federal transit administrator—improving transit systems would mean an improvement in the quality of life for residents of the entire Seattle region.

“Reliable rail transportation is going to ideally provide you with identical, predictable, reliable travel times, no matter what the weather conditions and no matter what the traffic,” he says. “So you have the assurance that you’ll be able to get home and see your kids for dinner or get home in time for a Little League game, get to your evening appointments on time, get to see your kids before they have to go to bed.”

transit system sound transit u link opening
Sound Transit U Link launch day on March 19, 2016. Courtesy Sound Transit.

Transit agencies typically have difficulty getting the necessary funding to improve their systems because they rely on a hodgepodge of passenger fares, federal contributions, and voter-approved ballot measures.

“In fairness, we are a relatively new system on the rail side,” Rogoff says. “But if we do this right, we never will [have this challenge], because we will have budgeted enough money to ensure that we could replace equipment, infrastructure, and vehicles as they need to be.”

Under the direction of Rogoff, who was unanimously selected to run the regional transit system, Sound Transit recently rolled out a $50 billion plan to expand light rail and transit options in each direction (north, south, east, and west) over the next 25 years. If the proposal passes, Sound Transit will add 58 miles of light rail and 38 stations—establishing a 108-mile system that connects 525,000 people every day, which would make it comparable to Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in the San Francisco Bay Area or Metro in Washington, DC.

For a relatively young system like Sound Transit, there is a lesson to be learned from some of the nation’s older transit systems—which have historically spent their budgets on current operating costs or expanding their networks instead of maintenance for existing infrastructure, and are now seeing huge waves of reliability issues that can’t support a growing population.

Courtesy Sound Transit
Courtesy Sound Transit

As a whole, there is an $88 billion backlog to bring America’s existing public transit infrastructure into a state of good of repair. This would require annual investments of $43 billion over six years to address both repair and growth needs of transit systems; current spending for repairs is only $17.1 billion.

In New York City alone, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) estimates it will need $32 billion through 2019 to maintain, replace, and upgrade its equipment while closing a $15 billion shortfall.

In the Bay Area, thousands of commuters rely on BART, which runs on the oldest railcars in the United States. Just this spring, BART started replacing some of its railcars for the first time in 44 years. If testing for safety and reliability continues to be successful, the Bay Area can expect to see 775 new cars in service by 2021.

“In terms of the fundamentals of the mechanisms by which BART is financed, you really have to take a hard look at why they had to delay that procurement as long as they did,” Rogoff says. “It’s always easier to get public support for the sexy new expansion rather than the replacement of the existing equipment, and that is something that burdens every system to a degree. My goal here at Sound Transit is to make sure that we don’t repeat the pattern by setting aside enough money in our financial plan so that we do not have reliability challenges 10, 20, and 30 years down the road.”

sound transit u link opening transit systems
Sound Transit U Link opening day art screens, March 19, 2016. Courtesy Sound Transit.

The agency foresees a challenge in trying to expand rail north, south, east, and west simultaneously and in-house. So to fast-track the process, Sound Transit is looking at private-public partnerships and contracting alternatives such as the general contractor/construction manager (GC/CM) method, which could potentially save both time and money. Sound Transit is also working on its own version of the U.S. Federal Permitting Dashboard, an online tool that attempts to streamline the federal permitting and review process, including environmental and community outcomes.

“Our goal is to try and get on top of the growth that we know is coming: a million people by 2040,” Rogoff says. “It will not be a panacea. It will not solve all the congestion problems in Puget Sound region. But not doing anything and not investing in these additional projects will be truly punitive to the congestion problems, the quality of life in the region, and the economy in the region.”

This week’s Redshift content is dedicated to Infrastructure Week around the U.S. #infrastructurematters

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