WASHINGTON – Commuting delays on public transit will stymie economic growth by $180 billion over the next six years, according to a report released Thursday in connection with Infrastructure Week.

Subway cars in New York City

Public transit agencies have a $90 billion backlog of maintenance, repair and modernization projects that are causing those delays, said the report by the Economic Development Research Group, which was written for the American Public Transportation Association.

The study looked at six major metropolitan areas – Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Transit executives from four of those cities and another from Columbus, Ohio spoke to reporters in a conference call on Thursday about the challenges and some successes they have achieved in obtaining dedicated local revenue sources to bring their systems to a good state of repair.

The challenges are significant. Public transit received the lowest grade, a “D minus,” among the 16 categories of infrastructure rated last year by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

But the payoff for transit investment can attract businesses and grow jobs. Amazon, for instance, is giving proximity to mass transit a priority in its search for a second headquarters outside of Seattle.

“When State Farm Insurance … was considering sites in Atlanta, the site selection team specifically requested offices be ‘as close as possible’ to the MARTA station to facilitate the interconnected walkway for employees,” the report said.

San Francisco, which was the first major city to make its transit system publicly owned, has a variety of taxes that fund transit.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency also operates 140-year-old cable car routes and is planning to close a 100-year-old rail tunnel for two months to replace track and made other upgrades.

Transit chiefs from Chicago and Philadelphia also talked about similar challenges with their aging systems.

Atlanta’s system isn’t as old, but the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority hasn’t enlarged the system since 1990 when the region had two million fewer people.

The transit groups emphasized they need the federal government as a partner.

Joanna Pinkerton, chief operating officer of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), said her state does not fund transit so her agency depends heavily on the federal government as a partner.

Federal funding has covered 80% of the cost of purchasing new buses, Pinkerton said. “With these funds we have been able to provide customers with a safe, clean and reliable fleet of buses with an average age of five and three-quarter years,” she said.

Congress heeded the call with $13.5 billion for transit funding, an increase of about $1 billion, in the 2018 omnibus spending bill it was passed in March.

“While certainly this is a positive step forward in helping to address the nation’s aging infrastructure, this momentum must be maintained by providing similar or higher levels of funding for 2019 for public transit,” said APTA President and CEO Paul Skoutelas.

A looming question mark is what Congress will do in 2020 when the Highway Trust Fund is up for reauthorization. Part of that money is used for transit formula aid.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is among the groups advocating for a 25 cents-per-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax to boost funding.

Dorval Carter, president of the Chicago Transit Authority, put the recent action by Congress in a bigger context.

“I’m seeing an incremental increase, which is good because that incremental increase is critical to our ability to continue to address this issue,” Carter said. “But what we’re really talking about here is a transformational increase.

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