Antiquated transit systems grapple with repair backlog

WASHINGTON — Driven by high gas prices and an uncertain economy, Americans are turning to trains and buses to get around in greater numbers than ever before. But the aging transit systems they’re riding face an $80 billion maintenance backlog that jeopardizes service just when it’s most in demand.

The boost in ridership comes as pain at the gas pump and the sluggish economic recovery combine with a migration of young adults to cities and new technology that makes transit faster and friendlier than in the past. The number of transit trips over a 12-month period will likely set a new record later this month or next, say Federal Transit Administration officials. The current peak is 10.3 billion trips over a year, set in December 2008.

But decades of deferred repairs and modernization projects also have many transit agencies scrambling to keep trains and buses in operation. The transit administration estimated in 2010 that it would take $78 billion to get transit systems into shape, and officials say the backlog has grown since then. In some places, workers search the Internet for spare parts that are no longer manufactured. In others, trains operate using equipment designed, literally, in the horse-and-buggy era.

In Philadelphia, for example, commuters ride trains over rusty steel bridges, some of them dating back to the 19th century. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority — which operates subway, trolley, bus and commuter rail systems — is responsible for 346 bridges that are on average 80 years old. Officials said they may be forced to slow trains or even stop them from crossing one bridge that’s 1,000 feet long and 90 feet above the ground if it deteriorates further, leaving stations on the other side without service.

A key power substation relies on electrical equipment manufactured in 1926. There’s no hope for acquiring spare parts, so workers try to open the boxes housing the equipment as infrequently as possible to prevent damage from exposure to the environment.

“We’re operating on a prayer on that line,” Joseph Casey, the transportation authority’s general manager, said in an interview. “If that fails, half of our commuter rail system would shut down.” The system carries 125,000 passengers on weekdays.

San Francisco’s subway system, Bay Area Rapid Transit, faces many similar problems. Opened in 1972, BART was at that time the most automated subway system in the nation. But circuit boards and other electronic components for 449 original train cars — out of the system’s total of 669 cars — are now 40 years old, no longer manufactured and often impossible to replace.

BART employees regularly scour eBay and other websites in search of after-market dealers who might stock the parts, said Tamar Allen, manager of BART’s mechanical operations. When they find a dealer, they buy every useable part until “the well runs dry,” she said.

And that’s still not enough. Some cars have been cannibalized for parts in order to keep other cars working. Cars whose parts have been removed are still in use, but only when they can be sandwiched between other cars, Allen said. In some cases, employees have re-engineered parts when no replacements could be found, but it’s a difficult process because there is no margin for error, she said.

BART plans to buy 775 new cars by 2023 at an estimated cost of $3.2 billion, but so far the agency has identified only about a third of the money — enough for the first phase of 200 cars, James Allison, a BART spokesman, said. Where will the rest come from? “We’re working on that,” he said.

Despite these problems, passengers are averaging 365,000 weekday trips this year, a record high, Allison said.

Peter Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, who toured a BART repair facility last week, said reducing the backlog of transit repair and replacement projects has been his agency’s top priority for the past three years. The transit administration has awarded $1.53 billion for repair and replacement projects, and another $650 million is expected to be awarded this year. The Obama administration also has directed about $9 billion to transit projects through the economic stimulus act and a transportation grant program, although the grants weren’t specifically aimed at the backlog.

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