There’s an interesting discussion on Twitter, courtesy of Adam Batlan, about federal subsidies for capital funding versus operations. It’s become a popular reform proposal among American public transport advocates, who are frustrated with the status quo of federal funding for capital but not for operations. Unfortunately, the proposed change to the status quo – federal funding of operations and maintenance – is even worse than the status quo. The hazards of outside funding sources for operations are considerable and unavoidable, whereas those of outside funding for capital expansion can be mitigated by defining expansion appropriately, to the exclusion of ongoing maintenance.
Why federal funding should only go to expansion
Public transportation has ongoing operating expenses, and capital funding. Ongoing expenses can only change gradually – rail service in particular is dominated by fixed costs, like maintenance, and service changes have little effect on operating costs. This argues in favor of steady funding for operations.
Can federal funding be this steady? The answer is no. The federal government is where politics is. People with serious differences in opinion over issues including the overall size of federal spending, spending priorities, and how sensitive spending should be to economic conditions contest elections, and if one side has a majority, that side will get its legislative way. Nor is this some artifact of two-party majoritarianism. In consensus democracies the salience of a majority is if anything higher – there are big differences in policy, including transportation policy, between the various parties of Switzerland or the Netherlands, as the parties have to deliver results to attract voters rather than relying on polarization and partisan identity.
This kind of politics is very good when it comes to debating one-time capital projects. A center-right government committed to austerity with little attention to climate change, for example Germany since 2005, will not spend much money on rail expansion, and railroads will formulate their plans accordingly. The key here is that planning around maintaining current operations without expansion is not difficult, whereas planning around sudden cuts in operating funding is.
The issue of ongoing capital expenses
Current US policy is for the federal government to fund capital expenses, but not necessarily expansion. Normal replacement of equipment and long-term maintenance both receive federal funding. This is bad policy, because the way agencies respond to changes in funding levels is to defer maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then cry poverty when the federal government is generous.
The most extreme case of this is the state of good repair (SOGR) scam. The origins of SOGR are honest: New York City Transit deferred maintenance for decades, until the system collapsed in the 1970s, leading to a shift in priorities away from expansion and toward SOGR in the 1980s and 90s. There were tangible improvements in the last era, raising the mean distance between failures on the subway from about 10,000 km in 1980 to 250,000 in the 2000s. But this process led to a trend in which agencies would deliberately defer maintenance, knowing they could ask for SOGR funding letting them spend money without having anything to show for it.
By the 21st century, New York’s SOGR program turned into such a scam. The MTA capital plans keep having line items for achieving SOGR, but there are no improvements, nor does the backlog appear to shrink. If anything, throughout the 2010s service deteriorated due to slowdowns, until Andy Byford began the Saving Precious Seconds campaign. The same scam appears elsewhere, too: Amtrak deferred maintenance in the 2000s under political pressure to look profitable for privatization, a Bush administration priority, and when Obama was elected and announced the stimulus, Bush-installed CEO Joe Boardman began to talk about SOGR on the Northeast Corridor as a way of hogging billions of dollars without having to show increases in speed.
The forward solution to this problem is to credibly commit not to fund maintenance, ever. The fix-it-first maxim is for local governments only. The maxim for outside funding should be that any request for funding for maintenance or replacement is a tacit admission the agency cannot govern itself and requires an outside takeover as well.
The issue of frequency
The problem the thread linked to at the beginning of this post sets to solve is that some cities get money to build a light rail line but then only run it every 20 minutes. This, however, is a problem of incompetence rather than one inherent to the incentives.
A long-term revenue-maximizing agency, confronted with an urban rail line that runs every 20 minutes, will increase its frequency to at worst every 10 minutes, secure in the knowledge that the long run elasticity of ridership with respect to frequency in this range is high enough that it will make more money this way. This remains true even for a dishonest agency, which has no trouble maximizing long-term revenue by deferring maintenance and then asking for SOGR money when funding is available.
This fact regarding frequency is doubly true if the trains already run frequently at rush hour and only drop to 20-minute frequency off-peak. Fleet costs are determined by the peak, and large peak-to-base service ratios require expensive split shifts for crews. Therefore, a bump in off-peak frequency, especially from such a low base as 20 minutes, will increase ridership for very little increase in operating cost.
The thread does not mention the issue of connecting bus service much – I got yelled at for proposing half-hourly local buses timed with commuter trains – but there, too, the rule of only subsidizing expansion rather than maintenance or operation leads to good enough incentives. In Seattle, light rail expansion has led to bus service changes designed to feed the trains, increasing bus ridership even as rail service replaces the most crowded corridors.
The bus cuts of (for example) San Mateo County in response to rail expansion should then be put in the same basket of pure incompetence with the light rail line that runs every 20 minutes off-peak. The incentives line up in one direction, but due to such factors as unfamiliarity with best practices and managers who do not ride the trains they run, management goes in the other direction.
The forward solution here is to stick to funding by expected ridership. If the service plan involves low frequency, this should show up in the ridership screen and penalize the project in question, while urban rail lines that run every 5 minutes get funded.