Finance

Stalled Trains

Transportation might seem like the one issue best suited for local, state and federal cooperation. No transit system is built without affecting the planning process...
by | June 30, 2009

Transportation might seem like the one issue best suited for local, state and federal cooperation. No transit system is built without affecting the planning process at every level of government. But it doesn't work that way. Frequently, all the jurisdictions involved in the issue seem mired in a perpetual turf war with each other.

There are serious real-life consequences. The Metro system in Washington, D.C., for example, operates without any dedicated source of funding--it's the only system in the country that lacks one. Metro officials consistently complain that a shortage of funds makes it difficult to perform some of the maintenance tasks and upgrades that the system needs.

Area officials were happy last year when Congress voted Metro $150 million annually for 10 years. The localities had to match the money, and after some wrangling, they agreed. But President Obama didn't include any of the funds in his budget proposal. And Metro is still short of resources. There was early speculation that this contributed to last month's disaster, in which the brakes on a 30-year-old train failed and nine people died in the ensuing crash. At the very least, the tragedy reinforced a perception that funding squabbles are a threat to safety.

Nothing so tragic has happened recently in Atlanta, but the localities that fund the area's MARTA transit system also are feeling frustrated. This year, they joined forces and voted to give MARTA half their stimulus dollars to avoid service cuts. But the state legislature won't give them what they really need: a regional sales tax referendum that might allow MARTA some long-term breathing room. "We've put in place a number of policies that help us get over parochialism," says one planner, "but then we get to this point where we lose all control."

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