But What About the Highways-Transit Split?

As transit fans and policy wonks digest the details of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar’s (D-MN) new proposal, one question is coming to mind: Does it change the typical 80-20 split in the percentage of funding that goes to highways versus transit?

The short answer is, not really. While road programs got a hair less than 80 percent of highway trust fund money under the 2005 transportation bill, they will get about 75 percent of trust fund money under Oberstar’s plan, according to an analysis by the subscription-only Transportation Weekly newsletter.

Transit programs, by contrast, got 18.3 percent of total funding under the 2005 bill and would receive 22.2 percent under Oberstar’s proposal, Transportation Weekly found.

But the long answer is that this marginal improvement amounts to real progress. Among Oberstar’s four consolidated categories of highway funding, only one focuses on building new capacity — and that pot of money also gives states the flexibility to spend on new transit rather than new roads.

The other three highway funding categories Oberstar proposes would focus on repair of existing roads and bridges, air quality and public health improvement, and safety improvements. In addition, the House chairman also would create a dedicated program for metropolitan areas’ concerns and reform the New Starts program to ensure a more comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of new transit proposals.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and advocates are constantly confronting the tension between what’s ideal and what’s realistically possible. The question for some transit boosters may be whether to support Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s push for an 18-month extension of existing law, welcoming the chance for more time to promote their priorities, or whether to align with Oberstar’s plan and try to challenge the administration.

  • Alek F

    Transportation / Highway needs at least 50/50 funding – to make transit investment worthwhile.
    Ideally, I wish the feds would devote more funding to mass transit than to Hwy!
    Imagine, how things would be if we would get 80% for Public Transportation, and no more than 20% for Highways.
    This is where American cities could develop a world-class Public Transportation! It would be something we could all be able to rely on, and be proud of! (for the first time!)
    It’s time to catch-up to the rest of the world!

  • Kenney

    What really needs to happen is not a particular percentage split between highways and transit, but a United Transportation Trust Fund (UTTF). Transportation 4 America proposed this. Basically, all transportation fees (gas taxes, etc.) go into this one pot of money, thereby making expenditures more mode-neutral. In their words:

    “[The UTTF will] consolidate federal revenues received on all surface transportation modes. Expenditures from the UTTF should be prioritized to keep the present surface transportation system and public transportation service in a state of good repair and improve their interconnectivity”

    This last sentence is crucial, since if you read between the lines, it basically implies less money for highways. The highway system is already built out…it has been for quite some time, and that’s no secret. What highways need now is maintenance, not expansions and extensions (which is where we’re burning way too much highway money).

    If you come up with a particular percentage split for highways/transit, it’s just too arbitrary. Even at 50/50, what’s to say that highways even need 50 percent of the money? If the money is pooled together instead of siloed, it encourages more thoughtful use of the money, which by implication (at least one would hope) means less money for highways, perhaps even less than 50%.

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