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House GOP moves to decimate transit funding

In a move that should dispel any remaining thoughts that the House transportation bill will ever be signed into law, the Ways and Means Committee announced today that they will try to forbid gas tax revenue from funding transit.

Photo by Jim Nix / Nomadic Pursuits on Flickr.

The Ways & Means bill (PDF) would funnel all gas tax revenue toward road programs, redirecting billions of dollars per year away from transit, which for decades has received about 20% of fuel tax receipts.

Instead, the House GOP wants transit funding to come entirely from the general fund, pitting transit against all other government spending. To offset that spending, $40 billion would have to be cut from the rest of the federal budget.

Essentially, the House GOP is holding transit hostage to achieve budget cuts elsewhere—and they don't seem to care if the hostage dies. They will also be tossing aside a precedent set during the Reagan administration, one that has enjoyed bipartisan support through several transportation bills, including the 2005 law, known as SAFETEA-LU, which was passed by a Republican president and Republican Congress.

Dan Smith of USPIRG put it like this:

The House Ways and Means Bill stops just short of defunding America's public transit system. Instead it says that the real money with a funding source will all go to highways, while the tooth fairy will pay for transit. For Big Oil and the highway lobby, this is a dream, but it's a nightmare for America's transportation future.
In keeping with the secretive nature of the current House's transportation reauthorization process, the announcement comes just one day before Ways and Means will mark up the bill. There is even less time to protect transit funding in the House bill than there was to protect bike/ped programs in today's T&I markup.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog DC.

Ben Goldman is a freelance writer and city planner who is covering the federal transportation beat for Streetsblog Capitol Hill while Tanya Snyder is away.  


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Simple solution: Fund transit the same way you fund road projects: taxes. I.e., Establish a tax on transit fares that will be sufficient to pay for the federal subsidy. Better yet, get the government out of the being the middle-man. Transit lends itself far more easily to being proprietary (i.e., a profitable service/good) than do roads. Privatize mass transit and let private industry and the free market determine the best and most efficient way to meet demand.

by Lance on Feb 2, 2012 9:21 pm • linkreport

Transit has positive benefits for the community - transit users shouldn't have to pay for benefits accrued by other people. Driving has many negative disbenefits that drivers don't have to pay for. That's why we subsidize transit.

Beyond that, transit has specific direct benefits to road users (e.g. reducing congestion during peak hours), why should transit users pay for that which benefits someone else?

Why don't we just cut roads loose and let the free market decide how many lanes we should have and how much people should pay to use them?

by MLD on Feb 2, 2012 11:10 pm • linkreport



by Adam L on Feb 2, 2012 11:28 pm • linkreport

OMG Lance! You want history to repeat itself?

by LouDC on Feb 2, 2012 11:43 pm • linkreport

Does anyone want to contribute to my "send Lance to a basic economics class" fund? It's tragic that he STILL has yet to grasp the concept of externalities.

by n bluth on Feb 3, 2012 1:21 am • linkreport

I fully understand the concept of externalities. It's like when a bus spewing fumes keeps mucking up the air as well as the traffic in front of you. And I understand the economics of stealing from Peter to pay Paul because Paul wants to do what is 'right for the planet' but isn't willing to put his money where his mouth is at.

by Lance on Feb 3, 2012 1:58 am • linkreport

This is a little hysterical.

This is the portion of FTA's budget (pretty much the formula programs) that is tied to the Mass Transit Account. It does not include research nor New Starts.

Transit gets 2.87 cents out of every 18.2 cents of the gas tax, and a similaramount from diesel and natural gas sales. Virtually EVERY single person - directly or indirectly - in this country, pays into mass transit throguh this.

The sort of confusing thing about this setup is that is essentially is paying people (via transit) to stop paying a user fee (by driving)

Stop and think about this for a second. It's a funding source that only supports itself by the lack of its success. A guarenteed general appropriation every year would be much better, since transit is unable to support itself in the same way that the Highway Trust Fund, or Airport and Airways Trust Fund, or the Inland Waterways Trust Funds are set up. (the other transportation trust funds)

Also, someone didn't read the bill very well, because there is a planned offset for the transit appropriation next week.

by VSA on Feb 3, 2012 7:46 am • linkreport

Stop and think about this for a second. It's a funding source that only supports itself by the lack of its success. A guarenteed general appropriation every year would be much better, since transit is unable to support itself in the same way that the Highway Trust Fund, or Airport and Airways Trust Fund, or the Inland Waterways Trust Funds are set up. (the other transportation trust funds)

You are correct that success for mass transit means less for the trust fund. However you are incorrect that the appropriation in this bill is "guaranteed" in the same way the HTF funds are. Currently the status quo is that a portion of the HTF taxes goes to mass transit, period. The new bill basically says "here's 40 billion, in 5 years you can come back and beg for more."

Mass transit is tied to the gas tax specifically because it has direct benefits for drivers and the community at large. Drivers should pay for that benefit they receive.

Also, someone didn't read the bill very well, because there is a planned offset for the transit appropriation next week.

Do you have a link to more information on that?

by MLD on Feb 3, 2012 7:56 am • linkreport

Has either party considered simply allowing the states to decide what portion of the funds go to roads or mass transit?

by Jim Titus on Feb 3, 2012 9:49 am • linkreport

@Jim if its left up to states they spend next to nothing on Transit and depend heavily on Fed match for pretty much all major projects. Part of the reason that our infrastructure is in disrepair right now is they are over 800 days LATE on passing a transportation bill at all, which is stalling all state spending. Then you have a gas tax funding this which is pretty much useless when you count inflation. This kind of picking at the bill is just going to push it further down the line until after the elections if ever. No wonder La Hood is retiring.

by TeganAnn on Feb 3, 2012 10:00 am • linkreport

DC and Maryland would spend heavily on mass transit if they had flexibility. Perhaps all the "blue states" would continue spending the historic fraction on transit, maybe even more in some years.

If blue states don't want the federal government preventing then spending highway trust funds on transit, perhaps the red states don't want the feds forcing them to do so, in which case the obvious compromise would be to let the states decide. Or at least give them some flexibility. Right now it sometimes seems as if the states each get a share for roads but then have to compete with eachother for transit funds.

by Jim Titus on Feb 3, 2012 10:36 am • linkreport

Given the varying geography in the US, yes it makes sense to give states flexibility to decide what fraction to spend on transit. For urban states like Massachusetts, a lot; for rural states like Montana, hardly any.

by goldfish on Feb 3, 2012 10:44 am • linkreport

States and urban areas that have very limited transit receive very limited FTA funding by design of the funding formulas.

So by definition those states that don't have much transit get a higher % of their money to spend on highways.

It's not like FHWA/FTA just hand each state a check and say "20% of this for transit, 80% for highways."

by MLD on Feb 3, 2012 10:56 am • linkreport

@MLD: besides geography, the needs of different states will change year by year. One year a state may need to sink a lot of money into roads; the next, into transit. How much flexibility do they get with federal funding?

by goldfish on Feb 3, 2012 11:08 am • linkreport

@...well, everyone...

FTA's urban transit formula funding goes directly to the metropolitan areas themselves (transit agencies). It doesnt go to states themselves. Rural transit funding goes to state DOTs to distribute (because of a scale and capacity reason).

These funds can't be spent on funding on roads. There are certain permitted uses that are only transit specific. And This formula funding pool is roughly 6 billion a year (the bulk of FTA's budget), and is open to local jurisdictions to decide what they want to do with it. Spend it all on the Silver Line? Spend it on new buses? Maintenence costs of old buses?

You can see the formulas themselves, here

You can see how the funding flows for FY12Annual Apportionments) here.

One of the outstadning issues hsa been that the mass transit needs tend to be unbalanced across the country. NYC spends proportionally more on transit than say, Texas, but the states roughly have the same contribution . New York State also gets more and pays in less (since so many people ride transit there versus Texas, since the populations are the same). Since highway funds go back in a more or less equitable manner to states, a lot of politicians take a big issue with the transit funding split.

I do realize that this is sort of a national political issue of infighting that transit advocates don't really like to get into, but it also clouds the debate on formula transit funding too. Going to a model on general appropration would actually be better in this respect. You could truly focus funding on national priorities.

by VSA on Feb 3, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

Not good enough. Raise Metro fares high enough to pay for roads.

by JAY on Feb 3, 2012 10:15 pm • linkreport

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