New Poll: 27% of Public Would Cut Transit Aid, Versus 12% for Highways

VSpending.jpg(Graphic: Annie Lowrey)

The latest weekly edition of the Economist/YouGov poll asks where, if a balanced federal budget were the goal, the American public would rather see cuts to federal spending. As the chart above shows, transit was given the theoretical axe by 27 percent of respondents, tied with agriculture and housing but far behind foreign aid, which held the lead at 71 percent.

Much of today's online reaction to the poll focused on its illustration of the challenges lawmakers face in trimming the federal deficit when so much of it comes from programs the voting public is loath to cut. (The red bars in the chart signify the share of the budget taken up by the program in question -- Social Security, for example, comprises nearly one-quarter.)

But the poll also carries a significant lesson for transportation policymakers. How can one survey find sizable public support for cutting transit rather than highways while another reveals across-the-board backing for more transit investment?

One explanation is the simple appeal of a positive query, seeking endorsements for more federal spending, as opposed to a negative one that assumes across-the-board fiscal austerity. But another may be the frequent emphasis on competition among different transportation interests, particularly between roads and transit, for a share of Washington's limited pot of funding.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has done his part to defuse perceptions of a clash, telling a Chicago audience in September that "we don't want to pit one mode of transportation against another" and calling on local officials to help "strike a new balance." But lawmakers have continued to draw a dividing line between policies seen as favoring urban needs by adding transit to the mix and those that favor rural needs by spending more on roads.

"It seems to me," Sen. John Thune (R-SD) told a U.S. DOT official last month, that the Obama administration's livable communities office "is a program that's going to overwhelmingly focus on urban areas."

Every state in the union offers some form of transit service, including Thune's. But given that rail and buses are linked most often with major cities, wealthier, older, white voters outside of the northeast are likely to remain open to transit cuts in public polling.

The demographics that most strongly opposed transit cuts, according to the poll: Democrats, African-Americans, northeasterners, those between the ages of 18 and 29 (just 14% of whom agreed to cut transit), and those with a family income under $40,000 per year.