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Stimulus draft released; $30B for highways vs. $10B for transit

House Democrats have released a draft of the federal stimulus package. Among the $275 billion in spending is $30 billion for highways and $10 billion for transit. That's still way too much highway money, but at least it's a big small step up from the existing status quo which gave only 3% of federal money 20% of federal transportation money to transit.

Photo by Olaf on Flickr.

Most of the highway money will go to new sprawl-inducing lane miles. "In 2006, the Department of Transportation estimated $8.5 billion was needed to maintain current systems and $61.4 billion was needed to improve highways and bridges." And the plan's authors don't appear to have heard of induced demand, writing, "These projects create jobs in the short term while saving commuters time and money in the long term." Actually, since the 1950s we've learned that many highway project don't actually save time or money in the long term.

"Public transportation saves Americans time and money, saving as much as 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline and reducing carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons each year," the report also says. Of course, it says nothing about the environmental impacts of the highway building, since those increase carbon emissions.

The plan dedicated $1 billion to "new commuter rail or light rail systems ... and to speed projects already in construction." That's less than half of the $2.4 billion needed to fund projects the FTA has already approved, meaning many of the projects won't get stimulus money. (The highway portion only funds about the same percentage, $30 billion of $64 billion in potential projects.)

Existing systems will get $2 billion for "renovations to stations, security systems, computers, equipment, structures, signals, and communications. Funds will be distributed through the existing formula. The repair backlog is nearly $50 billion." Likewise, systems get $6 billion "to purchase buses and equipment needed to increase public transportation and improve intermodal and transit facilities," funding only a portion of "a $3.2 billion maintenance backlog and $9.2 billion in needed improvements." The American Public Transportation Association thinks potential projects are even greater, "787 ready-to-go transit projects totaling $15.5 billion."

Finally, intercity passenger rail gets $1.1 billion to improve "speed and capacity ... The Department of Transportation's Inspector General estimates the North East Corridor alone has a backlog of over $10 billion."

The chart below compares spending (green and red) with the unfunded transportation needs (blue).

Tip: Matthew Yglesias, who adds, "keep in mind that the process of getting a bill through the Senate is all-but-certain to make things worse."

Update: The above chart assumes that every highway repair project gets funded, before adding new lane miles. According to Transportation for America, the highway lobby is pushing for more expansions over repairs. Sign their petition to ask that repairs go before road expansion.

Update 2: The 3% statistic is wrong. That compared apples to oranges, weighing the transit money for only new construction against all highway construction and repair dollars. The DOT budget actually devotes 20% of transportation trust fund money to transit. This stimulus, with 25%, is only a small improvement.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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(I'm probably going to get flamed for this...) To be fair, considering what transit's market share is, 25% is pretty good, and still a few percentage points higher than what transit typically gets.

Also keep in mind that this is a stimulus...i.e. short-term. Many of the concerns brought up by you and others regarding transit funding are better handled by the transportation reauthorization bill later this year.

by Froggie on Jan 15, 2009 12:41 pm • linkreport

As far as I can tell, everything in the funded and unfunded buckets are projects that could start immediately. This isn't a whole new transit line that nobody's started designing yet. It's immediate upgrades and repairs, as well as new projects already in the FTA's hopper and ready to go.

by David Alpert on Jan 15, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

Ridiculous. Change this not. Transit and high-speed rail need bold leadership to ever get off the ground on a national-level and clearly Obama and company are only interested in providing us a variation on Bush and Mary Peters "cars and planes only" agenda.

by NevskyProspekt on Jan 15, 2009 1:09 pm • linkreport

Oh come on, NevskyProspekt.

1) As OP notes, transit has gone from 3% to 33%. The fact that it doesn't totally reverse decades of policy in one swoop doesn't mean it isn't a big step in the right direction. This IS a VERY BIG change from past administrations.

2) This is coming from CONGRESS.

by BeyondDC on Jan 15, 2009 1:13 pm • linkreport

Remember this is a stimulus bill, Prospekt. People seem to forget this fact.

Best case would be (and always has been) a strongly improved emphasis on transit. Wait for the Transportation Bill to be debated before judging.

Trying to make the stimulus bill into a transportation bill would make it a) a bad stimulus plan, and b) unlikely to pass.

by Alex B. on Jan 15, 2009 1:16 pm • linkreport

It's a start, at least. I'm not ready to jump for joy but I'm not going to call my congressman and flame him, either.

I think it doesn't go far enough in the maintenence department. Both roads and transit have huge backlogs of maintenence. The Highway Lobby ought to be ashamed (like that would ever happen) for pushing for more roads before maintaining what we've already got.

Maintenence is about as "shovel ready" as you can get. The plans are there. The expertise is there. From a stimulus perspective, it's waged work hours all the same.

I think that BeyondDC also makes and excellent point that this came from Congress. Congress has been bought and paid for by the Highway Lobby for decades. For them, this a progressive move. It's at least a move in the right direction. As much as we want change now, we must remember that any elected official will be more measured about change in order to make sure that it's what their constituents want. It's safer politically to be one of the majority vote for someone else's proposed change than it is to propose said change. This is even more so when it comes to breaking from 60 years of failed transportation policies.

by Cavan on Jan 15, 2009 1:22 pm • linkreport

Thank you, Alex. I've been trying to point that out since the get-go, but seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

by Froggie on Jan 15, 2009 1:47 pm • linkreport

It's just fallen on ears who think that there are enough stimulus projects around transit ($77.9 billion, according to that article) that we could spend all $40B of transportation stimulus money on transit, or at least road repair and transit instead of new lane miles.

by David Alpert on Jan 15, 2009 1:52 pm • linkreport


I'd love to spend it all on transit. But such a package would have no chance at passing either the house or the senate. The stimulus bill not only has to focus on projects that can start quickly, but it also has to get passed quickly. Speed will be a higher priority on this bill, plain and simple.

If given the choice of investing political capital into the stimulus package or into the transportation bill, I'd much rather focus that on the longer term, focused transportation bill.

by Alex B. on Jan 15, 2009 2:06 pm • linkreport

Agreed. The stimulus is a one-shot deal. The TEA bill is where lasting change can be made.

It would be a mistake to ignore the stimulus completely, but 33% isn't ignoring it.

I don't mind that folks are raising a stink, because the message needs to be out there that we expect more - that this is the first step, not the last. But it would be a mistake for anybody to get upset or position themselves as anti-Obama because this one bill doesn't fix everything all at once. For one, what's the alternative?

by BeyondDC on Jan 15, 2009 3:25 pm • linkreport

BDC: I don't want to nitpick, but I just want to point out that it's 25%, not 33%. $10b out of $40b.

Agreed that nobody should become anti-Obama because of this or something. At the same time, we shouldn't just cheer because we get something. Remember FDR's famous quote: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." We think Obama's team mostly wants to increase the share of money to transit. We have to make them do it.

by David Alpert on Jan 15, 2009 3:29 pm • linkreport


I was reading 10b out of 30b. My mistake.

by BeyondDC on Jan 15, 2009 3:48 pm • linkreport

The New Haven reaction:

by Downtown New Haven on Jan 15, 2009 8:32 pm • linkreport

Maybe I shouldn't assume good faith, but is it a sure thing that the highway funding will mostly go to new lane-miles? The language in the release splits road projects into two categories: "to maintain current systems" and "to

improve highways and bridges". Is it certain that "improve highways and bridges" means "build new lane-miles"? Could it mean, say, building a new bridge to replace an old one (or is that "maintenance")? Could it mean adding median safety barriers, bike lanes, new signage?

I'm glad to see a slightly higher proportion for transit (although it could be higher still). I wish the road funding had made a commitment to go to maintenance projects first, and had placed severe limitations on building new roads or new lanes (there are probably a few places in America where new roads or lanes are needed, but not many), and had a commitment that the bulk of "improvements" go to improving safety and efficiency and not to inducing sprawl and car dependency. For that matter, I wish there was some spending on improving urban street grids (rather than just highways), demand mitigation, and improving pedestrian facilities. But this is a bit of progress, at a time when the focus is on spending money quickly over moving broader policy goals.

by Gavin Baker on Jan 15, 2009 9:30 pm • linkreport

Again, the main goal of the stimulus is to get projects underway and jobs created quickly (within 90 days, 120 days, or whatever timeline Congress decides on). The only way projects that add lane miles are going to meet that deadline is if they've already been through environmental documentation, final design, and ROW purchase. And there's a lot fewer of those around than detractors claim.

Furthermore, another thing to consider is that major road projects generate a lot of jobs, a lot more than maintenance/repair projects do. So that might be another reason why major road projects are getting some of the focus.

Now, that all said, I fully agree that maintenance and in-kind replacement (albeit to modern standards) should be a top priority (if not outright required), before widening projects get stimulus money. The main exception I'd accept is if you have a bridge replacement project that adds auxiliary lanes across the bridge.

by Froggie on Jan 15, 2009 9:54 pm • linkreport

Agreed. We need quick jobs.

Keyne's pyramids aren't gonna build themselves anyways.

And it's a short time frame because since half the unemployed will be hired to dig ditches, the other half better fill them back up before it rains.

I know it sounds snarky and sarcastic, but that's essentially the philosophy behind Keynesian fiscal policy. The pyramid idea was even his. Hire all the unemployed to build useless pyramids in the middle of nowhere. That way we have full employment.

by MPC on Jan 15, 2009 10:14 pm • linkreport

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