Brookings: Feds Should Stop Giving Transit Projects the Run-Around

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Americans are moving to areas with better transit access, but their options are limited.

Via Dave Roberts at Grist, this congressional testimony from Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution [PDF] is a must-read for anyone interested in how the country can reduce dependence on cars and fossil fuels. High gas prices and soaring transit ridership have exposed the shortcomings of local transit systems, Puentes reports: 54 of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas have weak bus systems and no rail service. The federal funding mechanism is a major culprit:

One reason the metropolitan transportation system — which should serve as the connective tissue within and between metropolitan areas — is woefully incomplete, is due to flaws in federal policy.

Federal transportation policy has long favored highway building over transit investments. Transit projects are evaluated and funded differently than highways. The pot of available federal transit funding is so small that the federal government oversees a competitive process for new transit funding, requiring multiple hypercompetitive bureaucratic reviews that demonstrate a project’s cost-effectiveness. Funding is also subject to annual congressional appropriations. Highways do not undergo the same level of scrutiny or funding uncertainty. Also, while highways typically receive up to 80 percent of federal funds (and 90 percent for improvements and maintenance), new transit projects’ federal contribution is often less than half of the project cost.

Taken together, these biases ensure that state transportation policy pursued under federal law works against many metropolitan areas’ efforts to maintain modern and integrated transportation networks.

Puentes delivered his testimony to the Senate Banking Committee, which has been considering emergency funding for local transit agencies. Read the whole thing for a good overview of how transportation and land-use policies can be improved as we approach the renewal of the huge five-year federal transportation bill.

Graphic: Brookings Institution

  • I found this to be really insightful and interesting. I’ve often wondered, what with the billions of dollars of federal highway funding thrown about, how some of it doesn’t get tied up in alternative transportation projects. Now, a further question would be – does this reality have something to do with the DoD/National Security functions our highways serve, or is because detroit/auto lobbies and/or construction lobbies are trying to preserve the status quo? When looking at the fact that this discrepancy exists, I’d like to know more about why it exists. Or is the simple explanation that constituencies are very vocal about more/bigger/better roads.

    We need to know the answers to learn where to focus our efforts! Thanks for the interesting piece!

  • niccolo machiavelli

    Good questions surely. I continue to be amazed at how little blogging interest this piece drives. All the while relatively low gas taxes nationwide pay for tanning beds in Anchorage. Curious.

  • Tom Rubin

    Before we get real far into how much Federal policies need to be changed, it might be good to remember that the Federal transit program is almost completely funded by fuel taxes on road users — which, of course, means that these revenues generated by road users doesn’t go for road purposes, that over 20% of the total Federal roads+transit money goes for transit, and that the total national transit passenger-miles (and I’m even including Amtrac) is about .7% of what is carried on roads, and a lot of the transit passenger-miles are buses, demand-responsive, etc., that use the roads. Also, transit’s contribution to carrying freight — which roads carry a lot of — is virtually non-existant.

  • Anon.

    Tom Rubin should think a little harder. The federal road money is no longer funded by fuel taxes by road users: we just ran out of ’em. Now they’re asking for general fund taxes. Of course, a vast amount of the existing road system was funded from general fund taxes, not from fuel taxes: federal general fund subsidies to road-building started out big in the 1920s and only became small in the 1970s. Furthermore, state and local road funding is largely funded out of general taxation.

    As for freight, indeed freight rail is so much more efficient than trucks that the freight railroads can pay *property taxes* on their rail lines and most of them don’t go bankrupt. Of course, several of them did go bankrupt in the 1970s, and the federal government had to pay for them — remember Conrail? This was *still* a better use of money than endless, endless road widening.

    I think nobody disputes that local last-mile roads need to exist; cars and trucks are the most efficient means of moving small numbers of people and small amounts of freight over long rural distances.

    But for mass transportation of large quantities freight *or* people, highways are a ridiculous waste, from an energy-efficiency, land-use, and economic efficiency point of view. Especially for freight. Truckers are well documented to not pay enough gas tax to cover even the maintenance costs of road damage caused by trucks: they are living off a vast government subsidy (paid by property taxes, state income and sales taxes, and drivers of cars). Most truckers would go bankrupt if they had to pay their full costs — in fact this is why they do things like avoiding toll roads.

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