MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This week, the Metrorail system here in Washington, D.C., was shut down for a full day, leaving some 700,000 people scrambling to find other ways to get around. And the D.C. subway isn't the only transit system coping with aging and decaying infrastructure, as NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Service is back to normal on the Washington, D.C., Metro now, but the entire rail system shut down Wednesday for emergency inspections and repairs of electrical power cables after one had caught fire on Monday. The closure frustrates regular Metro riders.
JOHN FANSMITH: I think it's just indicative of the decline in service and the decline in reliability of the system. It's good they didn't risk lives but...
SCHAPER: D.C. resident John Fansmith.
FANSMITH: I mean, I've lived in the city for 20-something years now, and I've used Metro a lot. And it really has gotten so much worse in the last couple years.
SCHAPER: The Metro shutdown even caused some indigestion on Capitol Hill.
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BARBARA MIKULSKI: Today, we have heartburn once again over the Washington Metro.
SCHAPER: Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski said in a hearing Wednesday that in the past six years, 15 people have died in seven separate tragic incidents on the Metro, some of which were caused in part by the state of ill repair.
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MIKULSKI: What we need is a Metro that really works in a way that people have confidence that when they get on, they'll get off and they'll be OK.
SCHAPER: While some of its problems are unique, the D.C. Metro system is not alone in its struggles with deteriorating infrastructure. Here in Chicago, there are no imminent problems that would shut down the city's subway and elevated trains, according to Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter. But...
DORVAL CARTER: In systems like Chicago that are old like ours - part of our system was built in the 1800s - you're always dealing with questions of maintenance.
SCHAPER: Carter says over the past couple of years, the CTA has spent $5 billion on infrastructure upgrades.
CARTER: But the reality is that we have $13 billion in unmet capital needs
SCHAPER: In San Francisco, responding to Twitter complaints from riders frustrated with lengthy service delays this week, a Bay Area Rapid Transit spokesman bluntly tweeted back that, quote, "BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. That is our reality."
And there are similar realities in Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Just about every city with a major transit system has deferred maintenance repair and improvement projects that are waiting to be funded. Art Guzzetti is with the American Public Transportation Association.
ART GUZZETTI: The fact is there's a - what we would call a state of good repair backlog. And when you quantify that, the number comes to about $86 billion.
SCHAPER: When the trains shut down in D.C., roads were choked to a standstill and buses were so crammed that many people either walked across town or just stayed home. And that points to the importance of transit systems to large urban areas, says Paul Lewis of the Washington, D.C.-based Eno Center for Transportation.
PAUL LEWIS: Essentially, it was a one-day partial shutdown of the regional economy.
SCHAPER: Lewis says the economic benefits of safer and more reliable mass transit service should help make the case for better funding for public transportation. But a significant transit-spending increase is unlikely in this election year. So advocates hope to at least spark discussion and debate about infrastructure funding in this year's campaigns. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.