Six Lies the GOP Is Telling About the House Transportation Bill

The transportation-plus-drilling bill that John Boehner and company are trying to ram through the House is an attack on transit riders, pedestrians, cyclists, city dwellers, and every American who can’t afford to drive everywhere. Under this bill, all the dedicated federal funding streams for transit, biking, and walking would disappear, leading to widespread service cuts and more injuries and deaths on American streets. But to hear the Republican-controlled Transportation and Infrastructure Committee tell it, they’re not harming anyone. In a statement, committee spokesperson Josh Harclerode told Transportation Nation earlier this week:

John Mica and John Boehner would have you believe their bill is a blessing for transit. It isn't.

Republicans are not anti-transit, but we do recognize that the Highway Trust Fund is paid for by highways users, and cities and local governments must look at developing a similar user fee system for transit users.

This bill gives more flexibility to states to fund their most critical transportation needs, and under this bill states can also use the funds authorized under the highway program for transit systems if they so choose.

Because of the struggling economy, changing driving patterns and more fuel efficient vehicles, the Highway Trust Fund is in repeated danger of running dry. The Republican bill stabilizes the Trust Fund for the next five years, ensures states have the ability to fund their most critical transportation needs, and also guarantees transit funding.

Transportation myths die hard, and here the House GOP is trotting out a bunch of them — plus a few new sadistic rhetorical flourishes — to justify what’s quickly becoming known as the worst transportation bill ever. A quick primer on how the Republican leadership is lying about their bill:

1. The House GOP is not guaranteeing transit funding. They’re eliminating guaranteed transit funding.

Ask anyone who works in public transit, and they’ll tell you this bill would wreak havoc as soon as it is passed. By ending the policy begun by Ronald Reagan of funding federal transit programs with gas tax revenue, House Republicans would cast a pall of uncertainty over just about every transit agency in America. The Republican “guarantee” is nothing but a guarantee of more haggling over limited dollars as transit programs go up against other spending priorities in the general fund. Without the certainty that gas tax revenues provide, transit agencies will immediately move to cut service and raise fares, exactly what Americans don’t need while gas prices are rising and jobs are still scarce.

2. Highways are not “paid for by highway users.”

Gas taxes and tolls don’t cover the cost of highways, not by a longshot. In 2007, for example, user fees only covered 51 percent of highway costs, according to Subsidyscope. In other words, roads are subsidized — on a much larger scale than transit.

3. The House GOP bill does nothing to “stabilize” the Highway Trust Fund.

The bill relies on one-shot fees from gas and oil drilling to make up for the deficit in the Highway Trust Fund. While this would ensure that highways are subsidized even more than they are now, it’s a completely inadequate way to pay for transportation infrastructure, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

4. There’s already a “user fee system for transit users.”

It’s called the farebox.

5. “Changing driving patterns” are not endangering the Highway Trust Fund.

The truth is that even though Americans are driving less, the nation’s transportation funding system would be on solid footing if the federal gas tax kept pace with inflation. But since the gas tax is much lower in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was in 1993, the last year it was raised, the Highway Trust Fund is depleted. Congress and President Obama could solve the problem by taking another page from Reagan and adjusting the gas tax.

(The other Orwellian touch here is that the House bill doesn’t actually include any policies to adapt to “changing driving patterns.” In fact, it seems to have been drafted with 1950s-era driving patterns in mind. A bill that accounts for changing driving patterns would reflect the steadily increasing number of American transit riders, cyclists, and pedestrians, and the decline of driving per capita. Instead, the House bill puts all its resources into infrastructure for driving.)

6. States already have the “flexibility” to spend their highway funds on transit — the problem is they don’t like to.

States have had the flexibility to spend their highway funds on transit for decades. But highways are what they know, so highways are what they build.

When the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act passed in 1991, it was supposed to mark the end of an era, says Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director for the Natural Resource Defense Council. The interstate highway system was finished, and federal transportation money would go to increasingly to other things — dedicated funding for bike/ped projects, an expanded transit program, a larger program for congestion mitigation and air quality improvement, all part of an enlarged Surface Transportation Program. States could “flex” STP funds however they wanted. “Unfortunately, the track record for flexing STP has been very poor,” said Lovaas. “State highway agencies focus on highways.”

If the House GOP really cared about local control of transportation funds, they could draft a bill that distributes federal funding to cities and towns. The problem for John Boehner and the oil companies who back this bill is that cities and towns spend transportation dollars on things like transit, biking, and walking.