The GOP Case for Cutting Federal Transit Funding Isn’t Principled — It’s Tribalism

They say federal funds shouldn't support local projects, but highway spending mainly facilitates local trips too.

Texas widened I-10 in Houston to cram more car commuters onto the highway system, not to facilitate national trade. Photo:  Socreate76 via Creative Commons
Texas widened I-10 in Houston to cram more car commuters onto the highway system, not to facilitate national trade. Photo: Socreate76 via Creative Commons

With Republicans controlling Washington, the Heritage Foundation’s dream of slashing federal funds for transit, but not highways, is dangerously close to becoming real policy. Trump’s budget outline [PDF] calls for a system in which the feds don’t pay for transit expansion and instead “transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.” Meanwhile, the federal government would continue to cover at least 80 percent of the cost of many highway expansions.

The insistence that transit is a local priority while highways are a national concern has become an article of faith in the world of right-wing think tanks. But today highway spending mostly serves the same type of trips that Republicans purportedly believe are inappropriate for federal funding, writes Jeff Wood at The Overhead Wire:

The only thing that is truly national in scope are the parts of the highway system that are outside of major cities where trucks conduct interstate commerce. The majority of traffic in cities are not trucks just passing through. It’s traffic for regional trips. Houston’s I-10 is now 26 lanes west of the 610 loop, those were created for the Louisiana to New Mexico traffic right?

But aren’t most transit trips commute trips as well? And isn’t interstate commerce done by train on tracks freight rail companies own and pay property taxes on? Should trucking companies be paying for the roads the operate on or do we see them as a public good?

We can flip this back and forth and argue what is “national in scope” all day I’m sure. The point is that it’s often based on ideology and what is virtuous in the eye of the person doing the analysis. In a true libertarian world they’d have a user fee on everything. But I’m not sure how that works on local streets or things we want to incentivize like say, using more compact transportation modes for traveling into a dense city center because that’s where economic activity happens due to agglomeration effects.

More recommended reading today: The Urbanist considers the failure of Seattle’s bike-share, Pronto, which was shut down last week. And Smart Growth America says that contrary to the spin from national media, cell phones are not what’s causing the spike in pedestrian deaths around the U.S.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Right. That’s the point. And why are Republicans against bicycles? Same reason many NY Democrats are. Tribalism. It’s revolting.

    Younger people want these things. Older generations want more and more for themselves without paying for it, which is what they have wanted for 35 years.

  • Elizabeth F

    Maybe the right distinction here is that highways with more than 4 lanes, and high-capacity high-speed interchanges, are local issues.

  • Larry Littlefield

    More than two lanes. If it were just intercity traffic, that’s all that would be needed.

  • Vooch

    Yes –

    transit advocates are not going to ever win the transit vs. car argument by bickering over who gets the subsidies.

    the way to peel off conservatives to our side will be to argue AGAINST highway subsidies. Conservatives are manic about user fees. Convince them that Highways need to stand on their own through user fees.

    even better argue for privatization of highways and eliminating federal gas tax

  • Elizabeth F

    I think we’re saying the same thing. A dual-carriageway road with two lanes in each direction — the standard for rural US Interstates — is a four-lane road.

  • Elizabeth F

    > the way to peel off conservatives to our side will be to argue AGAINST highway subsidies.

    That’s essentially what we have now, with continuing falling federal gas tax revenues. For better or worse, states are going to have to pick up more responsibility.

  • Bjorn

    This is one of those issues where urbanites can win focusing on arguments that emphasize more meritocratic, ‘succeed/fail-on-its-own’ beliefs that are a core value of many on the right, instead of focusing on fairness ‘something-for-everyone’ beliefs valued amongst many on the left.

    For instance, we know that federal transportation spending tends to disproportionately benefit rural areas that lean to the right, and would become more so under the Trump administration’s plan. If urban transportation spending is argued for out of ‘fairness’, right-leaning people will ignore the argument as it neither appeals to their core beliefs or benefits them.

    If urban transportation spending were argued instead on meritocratic grounds, while the ends will generally not benefit those on the right, the justification does resonate with their core beliefs. Given the choice between batting .0 or .5, I’ll choose the latter.

    https://www.fastcompany.com/3067593/how-to-use-moral-reframing-to-persuade-conservatives-to-support-immigration

  • Bjorn

    Given the above, If I were an urban politician I’d advocate for something along these lines:
    “Mr. President we believe that plenty of redistribution in federal transportation spending still remains, and we would support block granting all transportation spending to the state where the revenue is raised. Enabling states to spend only the amount of transportation revenue they can raise without federal bureaucrats picking and choosing winners and losers forces states to compete on their own merits, instead of mooching off states many miles away. When states can choose their own transportation spending destiny, we can Make America Great Again.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    “This is one of those issues where urbanites can win focusing on arguments that emphasize more meritocratic, ‘succeed/fail-on-its-own’ beliefs that are a core value of many on the right, instead of focusing on fairness ‘something-for-everyone’ beliefs valued amongst many on the left.”

    That’s pre-Trump. There is nobody who believes in either of those set of values with a generation of sociopaths in charge. And someone actually has written a book about it.

    https://WWW.BOSTONGLOBE.COM/IDEAS/2017/02/26/HOW-BABY-BOOMERS-DESTROYED-EVERYTHING/LVB9EG5MATW3WXO6XMDZFL/STORY.HTML

  • Larry Littlefield

    Not quite.

    If it were only intercity travel we were talking about, you would only need one lane in each direction. The two lanes on each side leaves one lane empty except for passing, in most of the country most of the time.

    People need to pass, especially trucks on hills. But you can save land and money by having occasional passing lanes — a third lane on one side of the road for a while, somewhere that there is no bridge so the bridges can all be one lane in each direction.

    I don’t know where you are from, but we have some roads like this in Upstate NY. Up along the Canadian border, a very low population area, some are demanding that a busy two-lane roads be covered to an empty four-lane road to interstate standards. Smarter people are talking about bypasses around the small cities, such as Canton, and a “super two” — one in each direction with occasional overpasses and passing lanes, especially on hills.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Use the gas tax revenues to pay the interest on the debts from the oil wars.

  • ZA_SF

    Of course, the existing interstate highways could be put up on the auction block for private venture funds. Toll roads galore, just like the days of Colonial yore, before military roadbuilding expanded. Just saying, don’t lose sight of what the primary motivators to these decisions are.

  • Patrick Jackson

    Agreed. If they say this hurts small states, advocate for states contributions in taxes to match their electoral college representation.

  • Elizabeth F

    What you say is true but irrelevant. The Interstate highway system has defined four-lane highways as the default minimum for long-distance rural Interstates. Given that default minimum, it makes sense to suggest that Federal funds should be used to maintain four lanes across the long-distance routes (mostly 2-digit numbers); and local funds for the rest.

  • Vooch

    true, except… the Feds step in every few years with a few hundred billion extra highway gift.

    Most drivers haven’t the foggiest idea that their driving is obscenely subsidized.

    For example, I did a back of envelope reckoning of a unsubsidized toll on the new Tappen Zee. to truest cover the capital and maintence costs the toll would need to be over $20 each way !

  • Elizabeth F

    I don’t think this administration is smart enough to engage in tribalism aimed at maiming/angering blue states. They’ve proposed plenty of measures that would be crippling to red states and Trump voters.

  • Elizabeth F

    Can you share your Tappan Zee numbers? Here’s what I came up with for

    capital costs, assuming 140,000 daily crossings:

    $4b / 140,000 users = $29,000 capital cost per daily crossing.

    $29K amortized on a 3.94% loan over 40 years is a “monthly payment” of $120, or $6 per crossing (assuming 20 days used per month).

    http://www.thruway.ny.gov/about/financial/bond/sales/recent.html

    http://www.newnybridge.com/documents/study-documents/old-study-docs/alt-analysis/rnr-chapter-8-200903.pdf

    (OK I haven’t included maintenance costs. But it’s hard to believe they will make up another $14 or more per crossing).

    Note that the $4b price tag comes in SIGNIFICANTLY under the estimated capital costs for replacement, as estimated in 2012. Unlike so many PA projects, the TZB has done a decent job of cost controls.

    Compare to $4b for just a frikkin’ subway station under the WTC. To pay for THAT, one would have to add $6 to the cost of a PATH ticket, which nobody would pay. Or what about the $10b cost of the PA bus terminal, which serves about 250,00 (and makes far more sense than dropping $4b on a subway station that could have been built for far less)? Where’s the extra $6 per ticket going to come to subsidize that necessary infrastructure?

    ————–

    On the broader front… it’s true that billions are spent subsidizing roads. But when you divide that by the TRILLIONS of vehicle-miles driven, the subsidy is really small, only a couple pennies per vehicle-mile. (Yes, I did the math once). Do the same calculation for transit, and you will get a subsidy AT LEAST 10x greater, per passenger-mile.

    The high subsidies is NOT an argument against transit; we all know that without transit systems, EVEN MORE would have to be spent building rush-hour capacity — if it were even practical to build that capacity. But the argument to subsidize transit because “driving is subsidized too” is weak. Just plain weak.

    The least-subsidized form of transportation is probably the bicycle. Bicycle design adds so little to the cost of roads, it gets lost in the rounding.

  • Elizabeth F

    > For instance, we know that federal transportation spending tends to
    disproportionately benefit rural areas that lean to the right

    Let’s correct that: we know that federal transportation spending tends to
    disproportionately benefit rural areas that lean to the right. Mainly because:

    * Rural areas have more infrastructure per person. If it weren’t that way, there’s no way you’d ever be able to drive a truck from NY to LA. Same thing for railroads. I suppose this isn’t an issue with air travel, which removes the need to invest even a dime in “flyover states.”

    * Rural areas contribute less in taxes and have more people requiring social services.

  • Vooch

    I figured 30 year note, plus 5% of capex annual maintence, plus a SWAG for operating costs, plus linear decrease in demand versus current toll.

  • Elizabeth F

    This would be about the same as simply eliminating the Federal gas tax; something some people have proposed.

  • Vooch

    transit advocates should be arguing for full privatization of all interstates

  • Elizabeth F

    The actual note seems to be 40 years. Not unreasonable for a bridge, which is different from a home where 30 year notes are used.

    Where did you get 5% capital costs for annual maintenance? That would seem to be rather high… And then the “SWAG”? Really… a few more numbers would be nice.

    And linear demand decrease? Why or how will demand decrease linearly over 50 years? I can see it leveling off and not increasing; but a huge DECREASE?

    This is a nice article about the history of the new TZB. It points out what I’d figured all along — that running rail over the TZB is not needed; instead, you can beef up the rail lines in NJ and build and improved rail tunnel. Apparently, lack of cooperation between NY and NJ on this issue is part of what lead to the demise of ARC. Now we have neither rail over the TZB, nor a new midtown rail tunnel. Thanks for nothing, pols!

    https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/lessons-from-the-tappan-zee-bridge/404032/

  • The Feds should pay for all the main US Highways and Interstates, but not spurs and beltways that are largely only serving local or regional needs. This should also extend to rail infrastructure and Amtrak.

  • But don’t worry, those folks see any cuts that impact them as a small price to pay if that’s what it takes to address the “problems”.

  • Elizabeth F

    > his should also extend to rail infrastructure and Amtrak.

    That would mean splitting off the regional Amtrak operations (the only ones that are profitable), and funding the long-distance only. Except it’s hard to justify funding long-distance Amtrak on anything other than political grounds.

    Most long-distance rail infrastructure is privately owned (freight railroads).

  • Long-distance highways would lose money too if tolled, but they’re in the national interest which is why we fund them. Ditto for rail infrastructure, including Amtrak.

  • The Heritage Foundation has already called on Trump to lift the ban on tolling Interstates.

  • They might as well.

  • A lot of times, the impetuous to convert two-lane roads to four-lane Interstate standards is safety. A divided highway drastically reduces head-on collisions, so places with lots of those crashes will be quite interested in converting them upwards.

  • Vooch

    40 years might be fine

    2.5% annual maint. matches depreciation

    operations costs are typically outrageous ( ask Larry L. ? )

    Demand for driving is roughly in medium-long term a linear function of price. Hence, if toll increases 20% it’s reasonable to predict a 20% decrease in demand.

  • Vooch

    let me try to figure this argument out.

    Too many drivers are recklessly speeding.

    Therefore, we need to build a even bigger highway.

    which only encourages more reckless speeding AND induces even more driving

  • Vooch

    nice

  • I’d hardly say it induces much driving in truly rural areas, but it does significantly lower head-on collisions, which tend to be especially deadly. Just look at the Texas crash last week, that’s a great example of the type that is greatly mitigated.

  • Vooch

    maybe the solution is to slow motor traffic further down by designing roads for slower speeds ?

    encouraging higher speeds has resulted in 40,000 Americans killed every year.

    That’s not a successful design approach.

    change

  • Vooch

    why are long distance highways which nobody wants to pay for ‘ in the national interest ‘ ?

  • Elizabeth F

    The idea that they would lose money if tolled is incredibly dubious. Long-distance Amtrak loses money because there are cheaper/better options available (airplanes) for much of what it might be used for; and cheaper options (buses) for the rest.

    None of those apply to long-distance Interstates, which are crucial for the transport of goods. Air freight is a LOT more expensive than trucks, and rail is a lot slower / less reliable. UPS customers don’t want to hear that their Amazon package might arrive this week, or it might come two weeks from now; and supermarkets don’t want to receive rotten produce that was delayed in the Chicago rail yards. Where people don’t care about delays here and there (coal, iron ore, etc), rail already owns the market.

    But all this assumes that somehow rural Interstates are subsidized. Which they are likely not, given the Federal gas tax. Rural Interstates in general are cheap to build and maintain. It’s entirely possible that even today’s modest gas tax is enough to sustain them.

  • Elizabeth F

    > Demand for driving is roughly in medium-long term a linear function
    of price. Hence, if toll increases 20% it’s reasonable to predict a 20%
    decrease in demand.
    >
    >With a 20% decrease in demand, the toll needs
    to increase a tad to cover the decrease in demand which further
    necessitates a smidgen increase in toll.

    Total BS. Witness the GWB/Lincoln/Holland Tunnels, where price has almost doubled since 2011; and yet, the wait is as long as ever at the toll booths and demand has barely moved. By your model, a 100% increase in price would have resulted in a 100% increase in demand; hence, nobody driving across the bridge anymore.

    As for the TZB… tolls are NOWHERE NEAR the levels needed to produce a “death spiral” of demand destruction.

  • That’s a great solution in neighborhoods. That’s not a reasonable solution in the middle of nowhere, which is what we’re talking about in the first place.

  • Vooch

    at $15 each way

    we’d have a virtuous cycle

  • Vooch

    so motor traffic killings are okay in the country ?

    really ?

  • It’s more than just speed that kills. A divided highway brings safety to higher speeds, and this is before we get to a bigger proportion of autonomous cars on the roads.

  • Vooch

    agreed

    so we should engineer roads to force drivers to slow down AND also add other measures to protect children & elderly from drivers.

    9’6″ lanes with metal bollards do wonders for safety

  • Bill hutchison

    It’s complicated. First off, historically, most transit and intercity rail passenger service was operated by private business, while roadbuilding was a public affair. Thus, the mindset was: “Oh railroads are for profit business. Meanwhile, let’s keep spending money on roads.” There was no way private business could compete with government subsidized competition and these once vast public transportation networks began to shrivel and die. Then the government was forced to grudgingly step in to save the rotting carcasses of transit and intercity passenger rail and transit. Highways and aviation had a 50 year head start when it came to public funding and that destroyed the ability of private enterprise to compete. This attitude still prevails. Even here, I see people saying trains should be “profitable.” It won’t happen as long as the transportation marketplace is so distorted by massive subsidies for highways and aviation. That’s the source of the problem. I might add that highways and aviation are at least partially funded thru dedicated trust funds, while Amtrak has to go hat-in-hand to Congress every year and be subject to the uncertainties of the process. Long range planning or equipment acquisition is nearly impossible.

    Yes, tribalism does play a role. Suburban Repubs are not interested in doing anything to help THOSE people who live in the cities and vote Democratic, anyway. They want more lane miles of shimmering concrete so they can cut a minute or two off their commute so they can get Buffy to cheerleader practice on time. They are always fond of saying transit is a local issue, when those locals pay taxes too. In fact, in many states, gas tax and registrations are off limits for anything but roads. In Ohio 10% of all households do not own a motor vehicle, but ODOT spends nearly all of its funds on roads. Transit gets about $15 million, but if the money was apportioned by those carless households, the figure would approach $300 million per year. It’s all slanted and has a whiff of unspoken racism about it.

  • davidlubic

    The highway system loses more money than anyone knows–

    Highway Revenue (Fuel Taxes and Tolls): $136.5 billion
    Highway Expenditures (All Government Levels): $238.4 billion
    Difference (Subsidy–Sales, Income, and Property Taxes): $101.9 billion

    Source:

    https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2014/hf10.cfm

    I don’t have the other information in front of me, but as I recall, this amounts to something like 60 cents per gallon. On top of that, this is just cash flow accounting. Full cost accounting, which would include depreciation and deferred maintenance would look even worse.

    And we haven’t even started on externalities, such as air pollution and oil wars, the latter driven because we use so much oil in driving.

    The situation isn’t new, as Bill Hutchison points out below. Check out this video from the early to mid 1950s, in particular starting at around 13:30.

  • davidlubic

    They already do, you just don’t know how much–see this comment, reprinted from above:

    Highway Revenue (Fuel Taxes and Tolls): $136.5 billion
    Highway Expenditures (All Government Levels): $238.4 billion
    Difference (Subsidy–Sales, Income, and Property Taxes): $101.9 billion

    Source:

    https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2014/hf10.cfm

    I don’t have the other information in front of me, but as I recall, this amounts to something like 60 cents per gallon. On top of that, this is just cash flow accounting. Full cost accounting, which would include depreciation and deferred maintenance would look even worse.

    And we haven’t even started on externalities, such as air pollution and oil wars, the latter driven because we use so much oil in driving.

    The situation isn’t new. Check out this video from the early to mid 1950s, in particular starting at around 13:30.

  • davidlubic

    From above, with source information:

    Highway Revenue (Fuel Taxes and Tolls): $136.5 billion
    Highway Expenditures (All Government Levels): $238.4 billion
    Difference (Subsidy–Sales, Income, and Property Taxes): $101.9 billion

    Source:

    https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2014/hf10.cfm

    I don’t have the other information in front of me, but as I recall, this amounts to something like 60 cents per gallon. On top of that, this is just cash flow accounting. Full cost accounting, which would include depreciation and deferred maintenance would look even worse.

    And we haven’t even started on externalities, such as air pollution and oil wars, the latter driven because we use so much oil in driving.

    The situation isn’t new. Check out this video from the early to mid 1950s, in particular starting at around 13:30.

  • Elizabeth F

    > They already do, you just don’t know how much

    How do you know what I don’t know?

    > –see this comment, reprinted from above:

    We were talking about the Rural Interstate Highway system, whereas the $136.5b number is for every road in the USA. Which is totally useless to figure out how much the Rural Interstate is subsidized.

    The actual Federal number from that spreadsheet is $33b from the Federal Gas Tax and $32b used for highway purposes. Divide by 1 Trillion VMT (just for rural highways), and you see that highways are really really cheap compared to all the other costs of driving. Especially Rural Interstates, where land is cheap and fewer overpasses, underpasses and bridges are required. Doubling or tripling the cost of something that’s really cheap won’t suddenly make it expensive and destroy demand.

    https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_36.html

  • Elizabeth F

    > And we haven’t even started on externalities

    Tell you what… decide on whatever price you think is appropriate for all the direct costs, hidden costs, externalities and subsidies. Then divide by the 3 TRILLION annual VMT in the USA, to get the full cost per mile. Then compare to the commonly accepted ~$.50/mi cost of owning and operating a motor vehicle.

    Every time I’ve gone through this exercise, using the numbers of the person I’m having the discussion with, I come up with a very small number; maybe a couple of cents per vehicle-mile. 3 Trillion is a BIG NUMBER. There is no way that something THAT PERVASIVE could be subsidized more than in a minor way. Do the same for transit, and you come up with 10+ cents per passenger-mile subsidy.

    See here for what I mean (look at “Chained 2000 Dollars per Thousand Passenger-Miles.” Once you divide by 3 Trillion, the graph for highways — whether the number is >0 or <0 — becomes indistinguishable from zero.

    https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/federal_subsidies_to_passenger_transportation/pdf/entire.pdf

  • Elizabeth F
  • Elizabeth F

    > The Heritage Foundation has already called on Trump to lift the ban on tolling Interstates.

    …from the people who brought us Romneycare / Obamacare — essential, but loved by nobody. I’ll stick with my single-payer highway system, thank you very much.

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