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 number of transit trips over a 12-month period likely will set a new record later this month or next, Federal Transit Administration officials say. 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 80 years old on average.
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," said Joseph Casey, the transportation authority's general manager, in an interview. "If that fails, half of our commuter rail system would shut down." The system carries 125,000 passengers on weekdays.
The transportation authority doesn't have enough money to replace the bridges or outdated electrical equipment, Mr. Casey said. In recent years, the authority has spent $600 million on renovating elevated portions of a subway line that dates back to 1905. Some of the older cars - nearly 40 of which are still in service - are in such disrepair that passengers get soaked from leaks when it rains.
And yet passengers made 334 million trips on the transit system last year, the most in 22 years, despite a 9 percent fare increase. So far this year, ridership is up 3 percent, Mr. Casey said.
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 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 usable 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, Ms. Allen said. In some cases, employees have re-engineered parts when no replacements could be found, 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, BART spokesman James Allison said.
Where will the rest come from? "We're working on that," he said.