How the region will start using data to better maintain its transit systems

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Funding to maintain transit has been a hot topic recently. As a region, substantial amounts of money are spent on maintaining transit systems. Just like potholes in the roads, buses, railcars, and stations also need upkeep. And it’s not just about Metro. The Washington region has many more small and large transit agencies and providers that serve the public. In order to get the funding right, it helps to have data to assess what transit providers need the most to maintain a state of good repair.

As part of the most recent federal surface transportation law, known as the FAST Act, performance-based planning and programming provisions required the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to craft new rules.  These rules mean state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) must collect data and set targets to support performance-based decision-making.

RELATED: New federal rules for MPOs, explained

In May, TPB, as the MPO for the region, will take up the first set of performance measures by setting targets for Transit Asset Management. Already, transit agencies and the state departments of transportation have set their own targets based on the age and condition of their transit fleets, service vehicles, and facilities. Now, the TPB has to set targets for the transit assets of the region as a whole.

Collecting data on transit assets is new for many transit agencies, states, and MPOs. These new rules mean that even small transit agencies and non-profit paratransit companies must report their data and set targets.

What is Transit Asset Management?

Transit Asset Management (TAM) is the strategic way that transit agencies buy, operate, inspect, maintain, and rehabilitate their fleets, facilities, and service vehicles. It’s also the way that agencies manage fleet and facility performance, risks, and costs. Measures of asset age and condition help guide how to prioritize funding to improve or maintain a state of good repair.

USDOT requires that federally funded transit agencies develop what’s called a TAM Plan. First, transit providers need to assess current conditions of all of their assets. Next they need to set standards for condition and performance. Providers also need to identify any risks involved in using assets that are not in a state of good repair. Once they have a plan, providers then must establish targets for the acceptable performance of their assets. Each year, agencies will be required to report their progress in meeting these targets.

The TPB also has to set transit asset targets for the region as a whole, taking into account the current condition of the assets, funding levels, and agency budgets. These targets will also set a baseline for annual data collection. In the future, trends will emerge to help better allocate funds to ensure that the region’s transit assets are well maintained.

The Washington region has many transit providers both large and small

There are many federally funded transit providers in the region. Aside from the large well-known agencies, there are also small non-profits that run van or bus services. Any agency, transit provider, or jurisdiction that receives federal transit funding must report their TAM targets and plans.

To help ease the burden for the smaller providers, USDOT divided transit agencies into two tiers. Tier I is transit agencies with more than 100 vehicles or those that run a rail line. Tier II includes smaller transit agencies that run fewer than 100 vehicles. In total, there are 19 regional transit providers in the region: 7 in Tier I and 12 in Tier II.

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The Washington region is home to 19 transit providers: 7 in Tier I and 12 in Tier II. (TPB)

Tier I providers set their own performance targets and implement their own TAM Plan. Tier I providers also report their performance and targets annually. Tier II providers have the option to participate in a group plan or they can opt out of the group and set their own plans. The group option helps very small providers work together to fulfill the federal requirements.

Each of the agencies, groups, and states in the region have already set their targets. But let’s take a moment and break down each of the measures to better understand what they are.

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Performance measures for transit assets focus on rolling stock, which includes buses, trains, and vans, and service vehicles, facilities, and infrastructure. These measures are also divided into age measures and condition measures. (TPB)

Two measures: age and condition

There are two measures that transit agencies need to evaluate. For buses, railcars, vans, and other vehicles, age is the key measure. For facilities and infrastructure, a measure of condition is used.

USDOT asks for a measure called a “useful life benchmark (ULB).” ULB is the measure that agencies use to assess the fleets and service vehicles—basically, how long can a vehicle be used until maintenance costs outweigh replacement costs. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has one model for assessing ULB but a transit provider can use its own based on operating conditions, warranty, or other considerations.

As an example, here is how WMATA has determined its targets for the ULB. The agency takes into account budgeting realities of replacing aging vehicles.

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Usable Life Benchmark, or ULB, is a measure to assess the age of buses, railcars, vans, and other vehicles. Transit providers take into account age, funding, maintenance costs, and reliability. (WMATA)

To assess the condition of facilities and infrastructure, a condition-based rating system provides a way for reporting agencies to rate facilities and infrastructure.  For facilities, FTA provides a 5-point scale.

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FTA provides a 5-point scale to assess facility condition. (WMATA)

Our regional targets

Since the Washington region has such variety in transit providers, it would be difficult to set one target for all. Instead, TPB staff have compiled a report from all of the reporting agencies in the region.

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At its May meeting the TPB will consider approving the targets in the chart above to be set as the region’s Transit Asset Management targets. The percentages reflect the maximum percentage of assets that are at or exceeding the standard. These will provide a starting point to assess performance going forward. These targets will be reset in 2018 and each year after for data-driven and performance-based decision-making. (TPB)

What happens next?

Over the next two years, the TPB will be setting targets for other performance measures—highway safety, highway pavement and bridge condition, highway system performance—and will be re-setting the transit asset targets in 2018. Performance-based planning and programming requirements will lead to a stronger linkage between funded projects and how the region’s transportation system performs.

Cover photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr

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