Transit’s Not Bleeding the Taxpayer Dry — Roads Are

Note the massive stream of non-user funding for roads and the eensy weensy bit taken out for transit. Source: ##

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Roads don’t pay for themselves.

But maybe they should.

“Taxpayers cover costs that should be borne by road users,” asserts the State Smart Transportation Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Road subsidies push up tax rates, squeeze government services, and skew the market for transportation.”

SSTI, along with the smart growth group 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, published a study in October showing that “between 41 and 55 percent of [Wisconsin’s] road money comes from non-users” [PDF].

Between 2004 and 2008, roads in the state cost an average of $4.24 billion annually. Of this, $1.74 billion came from revenue sources unrelated to road use—primarily property and sales taxes—while another $600 million was borrowed…

The fact is, roads constitute one of the biggest tax burdens we face.

Non-users fork over $779 per household for roads — as opposed to $50 for transit. But most drivers still believe that transit eats a huge chunk of transportation funding while roads are self-supporting. SSTI wanted to dispel that notion, said study author Bill Holloway.

“So much of the time, when you get into a conversation about transportation, people talk about the subsidy we provide to transit riders,” Holloway said. “Transit is a ‘subsidy’; highways and roads are ‘investments.’ But look at the tiny diversion from highway and road user fees that go to transit – it’s a drop in the bucket – and then realize that a huge portion of everything everyone buys goes to roads [through sales taxes].”

It’s not just Wisconsin – Policy Matters Ohio recently published its own version of the Wisconsin study [PDF], showing that in that state, drivers pay 60 percent of the cost for roads, with government subsidies picking up the tab for the remaining 40 percent. Still think transit is the big money suck?

“The 3-C interstate highway corridor from Cleveland through Columbus to Cincinnati cost 7.5 times more to build than the 3-C passenger rail corridor would have,” the group notes, “and requires 18 times the level of annual appropriations to keep the highway in good repair (more than $200 million annually).”

It’s reasonable for property and even sales taxes to pay for some local streets – after all, whether you drive or not, everybody uses local streets one way or another. But SSTI finds that the degree to which non-users are subsidizing roads goes far beyond what’s reasonable.

The Wisconsin study was released about a week after a controversy broke in the state over whether or not to increase tolling. SSTI realized it was a ripe moment to inject some realism into the conversation about how transportation is funded.

Wisconsin could fully fund its roads by raising the gas tax by about 50 cents per gallon or by imposing highway tolls, according to the study. But Governor Scott Walker is more interested in making sure the paltry amount drivers do spend to support the transportation system they use goes to roads and nothing but roads.

Walker (famous nationwide for returning high-speed rail money to the federal government and then asking for some of it back) has bought into the myth of the long-suffering driver subsidizing the freeloading transit user. He’s proposed barring driver user fees from being used for transit at all – a big gift to the highway lobby. Even the road-builders themselves are only seeking a guarantee in Wisconsin that road-user fees will be used only for transportation. They wouldn’t dare go as far as Walker and insist that they be used just for roads.

In addition to Ohio and Wisconsin, several other states are also compiling information on how much of their road costs are actually paid for by road users – Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota will be coming out with their reports soon. Others can find raw data on their states in the appendix of the SSTI report [PDF].

48 thoughts on Transit’s Not Bleeding the Taxpayer Dry — Roads Are

  1. Roads at the federal level do not pay for themselves either. The HTF is nearing the verge of bankruptcy, and we have been transferring general fund revenues to cover the transportation bill outlay for years now.

  2. dudeee.. transit users are subsidizing road users and paying transit fares.  Raise the gas tax, it’s a user fee that encourages people to use alternative fuels, hybrid vehicles (or at least more fuel efficient), or mass transit!  (even better, reduce the number of trips, ride a bike??  walk?!?  shocking huh?!)   

    vehicle miles traveled works to a point.. but you’ll find that people will roll back odometers.  like a page out of a movie…

  3. Of course roads don’t pay for themselves.  Neither does transit.

    Just look at the latest WMATA study discussed in Atlantic Cities ( ).  It says WDC area would need to add 1,000 lane miles of public road to create the capacity now accommodated by public transit.  The cost:  $6 billion.

    In NOVA, we’re in the midst of paying $6 billion for 23 MILES of Metrorail.  And that doesn’t count the subsidies for operation once its built.

    So, which do you think is more cost-effective???

  4. Transit users pay 0% of the federal dollars they receive. They are almost entirely subsidized by road users, except for the 3 general fund transfers Congress has made in recent years.

  5. Can we get a parallel for either the federal level or for all the states combined? What about localities?

  6. @DD:disqus  — These are some incredible statements.  Your boisterous claim is factually incorrect on many levels.  Most importantly, the transit utilized at a local level is only marginally funded with the Federal Gas Tax, typically providing only SINGLE-digit percentages of local transit budgets.  Rather, your vague term ‘transit’ is funded by numerous means–mostly money set aside by a locality ie. City + County, then with State funds, user fees, advertising, and Federal grants.  **FACT: In 2010 the state of Ohio spent more money on cutting GRASS on the side of the Interstate than it did funding transit.

    The Federal Gas Tax goes (mostly) to the Highway Trust Fund, a fraction of which does go towards ‘transit.  Currently, the gas tax sits at 18.4¢ per gallon of gasoline (slightly different for other fuel types), and is distributed at a rate of 15.44¢ to the ‘Highway Account’ and 2.86¢ to the ‘Mass Transit Account.’   In 1983, the ‘Mass Transit Fund’ was created and signed into law under President (R) Reagan, by the way.

    Yet, the Federal Gas Tax DOES NOT increase with inflation and not increased since 1997.  Therefore, it has ran a DEFICIT for several years straight.  In 2008, the fund had to injected with $8 BILLION, or nearly 30% MORE $$ than the gas tax pays in.  This figure has certainly deflated as the number of miles driven has plummeted by nearly 1/3 from 2007 to 2010–thus, the revenues from toll payments and gas taxes have also sharply declined.

    Compare that to the $572 million of Federal Funding to transit that is currently being argued.  Consider this, the $8 Billion that is to fund a modern High Speed Rail Network over the next DECADE = the shortfall Congress had to inject into the Highway Trust Fund in one year.  Furthermore, Transit produces secondary revenues and reduces other costs to local governments in the form of, say, a) new / higher property taxes recovered with increases in property value around transit stops, b) taxes and fees on intra-state travel (ie. train from Chicago to St. Louis, or a Greyhound bus from Boston to New York), c) more transit = less auto traffic, thus reducing the cost of repaving roads, widening roads, congestion pricing, ect.

    Now you should also consider the social and environmental gains from transit…

  7. I would love to see on Streetsblog a similar report about New York State and City road funding.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already been covered; if so, I’d appreciate anyone pointing me to it.  If not, I would love to see a breakdown as specific as SSTI’s job on Wisconsin…

  8. On the local level, roads are 100% paid by property taxes and other local taxes. Local roads generate gas taxes, but are ineligible for gas tax funding. You can view it as a 0% recovery ratio, accompanied by a higher recovery ratio for national and state roads. Or you can view it as the road equivalent of deeding all bus fares to Amtrak, and then talking about how profitable Amtrak is.

    In addition, all road spending figures include only, well, roads. Parking is excluded, even when it comes in parking garages at $20,000 per space.

  9. Yes, raise taxes.  Ever think about cutting spending?  Do you not think there’s waste in the roads budget?

  10. There are state taxes on petro — at least there are in Louisiana — and those are dedicated to transportation, mostly for road maintainance. But that is a pittance compared to the share that comes from property tax. Our Gov. Jindal also rejected the Federal money for high speed rail and unsuccessfully asked for it to widen the I-10 from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

  11. I agree that drivers should pay a higher gas tax – both to cover road costs and social costs. But I don’t agree they are more heavily subsidized than transit. First, transit receives gas tax revenues while highways are not supported by transit farebox revenue. Secondly, most regions with large transit systems receive a lot of non user funding – Boston receives nearly a quarter of STATEWIDE sales tax revenue and local assessments. The DOT has even flexed capital highway funds to transit. Only 8% of trips in the Boston region are by transit, but more than 50% of federal transportation funds go to the system. Transit simply can’t come anywhere near meeting travel demand or pay for itself. And before I get slammed, let me say I’m a transit user who doesn’t own a car.

  12. MP1,

    Last year the Fed had to take $19.5 Billion our of the General fund to prop up the Highway Trust fund. Drivers cost only 51% of the costs of the highways. Now keep in mind that many states further subsidize the highways, and in this country most local streets are paved with property taxes rather than fuel taxes, in addition to the Federal subsidies.

    According to data from the National Transit Database for 2010, total Federal subsidies to all forms of transit were $10.364 Billion.  Total public subsidies, that is city, state, & Fed, were $40.07 Billion. Not quite half of that were capital expenses, largely for rail.  On the other hand, far more of the operating subsidies go to buses & demand response (senior & accessible services).  Rail riders on average cover 53.11% of their operating costs, while bus riders cover 26.75% of their operating costs.

    So I’d lay odds that the roads & highways are at least as heavily subsidized, if not more so, than transit.  And had rail transit not been so badly cut years ago, the amount of money being spent now to rebuild that across the country would be much lower than they are now. Thankfully rail infrastructure is far more durable than road infrastructure, meaning that in the future, capital expenses for rail could drop considerably, while road expenses will only continue to go up.

  13. Aside from perhaps Southwest airlines the airline industry is basically bankrupt. IN SPITE of transparent and hidden subsidy. During times of high fuel costs and after 9 11 the airlines received $22 BILLION in fuel tax rebates to tide them over while Amtrak’s budget was still being cut…. 

    Likewise, roads are a hopeless money pit. A two track passenger rail line on a a sixty foot right of way has the same capacity as a ten lane expressway on a TWO HUNDRED FOOT R O W. The rail needs minimal lighting, signalling, security, no plowing, generates no pollution requiring treatment from road salt/oil runoff and if electrically powered, minimal petroleum. Asphalt is MADE FROM OIL. Hence America’s endless oil wars, petro industry subsidies, taxpayer funded cleanups, asthma pollution related health issues and THIRTY THOUSAND DEATHS a year in car crashes.

    For my money High Speed Rail can’t be built fast enough!     

  14. Aside from perhaps Southwest airlines the airline industry is basically bankrupt. IN SPITE of transparent and hidden subsidy. During times of high fuel costs and after 9 11 the airlines received $22 BILLION in fuel tax rebates to tide them over while Amtrak’s budget was still being cut…. 

    Likewise, roads are a hopeless money pit. A two track passenger rail line on a a sixty foot right of way has the same capacity as a ten lane expressway on a TWO HUNDRED FOOT R O W. The rail needs minimal lighting, signalling, security, no plowing, generates no pollution requiring treatment from road salt/oil runoff and if electrically powered, minimal petroleum. Asphalt is MADE FROM OIL. Hence America’s endless oil wars, petro industry subsidies, taxpayer funded cleanups, asthma pollution related health issues and THIRTY THOUSAND DEATHS a year in car crashes.

    For my money High Speed Rail can’t be built fast enough!     

  15. Opponents of rail mass transit have a valid point – when it comes to government spending the tax payer’s money.
    So let’s consider a novel approach – instead of partisan politics bickering, let us grant ZERO TAX liability to any company (and its investors) that are 100% involved in building, operating or maintaining rail mass transit.
    No partisan politics. No endless “studies”. No back room deals.
    The only way the rail company makes a profit is when it serves the most customers for the least cost.

  16. A ten lane expressway has the capacity to move 2.4 million people a day.

    If it was your money, there would be no opposition. You are free to spend it any way you like. It’s when you start spending other people’s money that you start to find resistance.

  17. John,

    Not even close!

    On average 1 highway lane with traffic moving at 55 MPH, something that rarely happens during rush hour, can move 1,800 to 2,000 cars per hour.  And the nationwide average is 1.3 passengers per vehicle.

    So taking the higher number, 2,000 X 1.3 = 2,600 people moved in one lane in one hour.  Times 24 hours = 62,400 people moved in one lane within a 24 hour period.  And of course that is pure fiction, since there are no freeways in the US (even in NY City) that are full 24 hours a day.  Next, if we multiply by 10 lanes that gives us 624,000 people moved per day by a 10 lane highway.  That too is also pure fiction, since rarely are most highways at full capacity in both directions.  Save a beltway, usually most highways see heavy traffic inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening.

    Regardless, we are still way short of your 2.4 million people even if said highway ran at full capacity in both directions.

    Speaking of NYC, up there the LIRR moves more people into Manhattan each morning during the 4 hour rush hour period using just 3 tracks than the combined 7 inbound lanes of the Long Island Expressway (3) and the Grand Central Parkway/Northern State Parkway (4).

    Oh, and we are spending “other people’s money” on those highways too.  We drivers only manage to pay 51% of the actual costs of our highways via fuel taxes and other fees.

  18. 10 lanes x 2,000 veh/lane-hour x 5 people/veh x 24 hours/day = 2.4 million people/day.

    Fooled you, didn’t I?

    Capacity isn’t based on averages. It’s based on maximums.  If it were based on averages, the capacity of my bathtub would be about 6 ounces.

    I was actually yanking Malcolm’s chain for saying, “A two track passenger rail line on a a sixty foot right of way has the same capacity as a ten lane expressway”.  Instead, I woke you up and Malcolm is still nowhere to be seen.

    Note that I never made any claims about the capacity of rail.  I leave it to experts like you and Malcolm to tell us what the comparable capacity of a two track passenger rail line on a sixty foot right of way is.  Heck, for all I know, maybe you CAN squeeze 2.4 million passengers a day through those stations.  That would prove me wrong.  Why don’t you give it a shot?

    Oh, by the way, you might give some thought as to how many expressways you would need to accommodate all the arrivals and departures (at both ends or at multiple stations) … and how many gates and ticket agents you would need to process 28 passengers per second.  And don’t overlook how many square miles of parking you would need for all those passengers to park their cars.

    Go ahead.  Give it a shot.  Prove to us skeptics that “A two track passenger rail line on a a sixty foot right of way” has a capacity of 2.4 million people per day…the same as a 10-lane expressway.

    For extra credit, you can look up the speed at which an expressway lane can carry 2,000 vph.  Hint: It’s not 55 mph.

  19. Forgot to add:

    I have no reason to dispute your numbers re the LIRR.  That illustrates that 3 tracks beat 7 lanes.  That’s a pretty good start but Malcolm said 1 track beats 10 lanes.

    My remark about other people’s money was a response to his “For my money High Speed Rail can’t be built fast enough!”. I was suggesting that, if it was his money, it would be “fast enough”.  …because he wouldn’t need to be wasting time on these blogs.  Sorry if I was moving too fast for you.

  20. John,

    Please forgive me, I thought we were dealing with reality; not living in fantasy land.

    However, even in fantasy land the train still wins and the highway still loses.  The LIRR again has 4 tracks that they can use into Penn.  If we take the Amtrak trains and New Jersey Transit trains out of the picture, the LIRR could run 24 trains per hour through each tunnel.  24 X 4 = 96 trains per hour.  If they make all trains run with 12 cars, some currently run with less, and each car carries 110 people seated (I won’t even get into the idea of standees), that means 126,720 people per hour.  96 X 12 cars X 110 per car.

    Now we multiply that by 24 hours and we’ve moved 3,041,280 people per day, far exceeding that 10 lane highway and in far less space.

    Now I’ll grant that I did the math for a 4 track line, but I also used the single level cars that the LIRR owns more of in my calculations.  If we used 2 tracks only and only the bi-level cars that the LIRR owns that would give us 48 trains per hour X 12 cars X 143 passengers per car X 24 hours = 1,976,832 which is real close to your fantasy number for the highways and in far less space.  If we sent just a few trains with 14 cars per hour, since some platforms can handle trains that long, we’re bumping right up against your highway numbers.  Add just one more track and we’re blowing away the highway.

    And Penn Station has no expressways near it and it can easily handle the passenger load, seeing as how it already does handle that load during rush hour. You also don’t need nearly as many parking lots as you would think, since many more people arrive at an outlying station by either walking, taking a bus, or kiss & ride than by driving and parking.

  21. DD is right.

    Buy a plane ticket. Pay a tax.  Enjoy a subsidy ($0.09/mile).
    Buy a gallon of gas.  Pay a tax.  Pay a subsidy ($0.002/mile to transit).
    Buy a bus ticket.  Pay no tax.  Enjoy a subsidy ($0.118/mile).
    Buy a train ticket.  Pay no tax.  Enjoy a subsidy ($0.186/mile).

  22. Maybe where you live, you don’t have to register your cars.

    Where I live, auto registration fees and personal property taxes ON VEHICLES represent about a third of municipal revenue.  But local road expenses represent about 15 percent of total expenses (including snow and ice removal, BTW).

    If people didn’t own cars, cities and towns would have to increase property and/or sales taxes.  If there were no local roads, how would you get to your bus stop?  …over your neighbor’s lawn?

    Your logic is flawed.

  23. John,

    No, DD is wrong! And so are you and your numbers.  DD initially said “OK, but transit users pay 0%.”  That is totally false!  Transit users in 2010 actually paid 32% of their costs.  And the worst offenders, the ones dragging down the National average are buses & demand response.  Riders on trains actually cover 53.11% of their operating costs; bus riders only manage 26.75% via the fare box.  So those opposing trains are actually begging for higher taxes.

    As for the numbers that you’ve provided, first, drivers do get a subsidy per mile. Yes, a small part of the Federal fuel tax does go to transit, but drivers are still getting a subsidy per mile. According to Subsidyscope, we drivers only manage to cover 51% of the costs of our highways via the fuel taxes and other direct fees.  Even if one backs out the money that goes to transit, and other things that some claim shouldn’t be charged to the highways, we drivers still only manage to cover 65% of our costs.  So drivers are getting a subsidy!

    Second, while I freely admit that the subsidy per passenger mile for driving is lower than it is for transit, that’s a function of taking a big number and dividing it by another big number. It doesn’t make the big numbers better though. Just the Federal borrowing in the last three years has topped $62 Billion.  Do you plan to explain the national debt to your grand children by saying “Well at least we kept the cost per passenger mile low?”  Yes, the debt is super high, but again we kept the cost per mile low.  Have fun paying it off!

    And in fact, if we were to apply the logic that having a higher subsidy per pax/mile is a reason not to do something, then we should have never built the highways in the first place, because when we first started back in 1956 that number would have been huge!

    Third, I’ve no doubt that number for the cars also is strictly for the highways.  If the fact that most streets are paved with property taxes were accounted for, it would be worse. 

  24. Posting as reply not working?  All replies showing as new post.


    Capacity calculations are fantasy.  Malcolm started it, not me.

    Okay, I’m going to accept your numbers and calculations as being good (Surprise!) and give you the win on this one.  In Fantasyland, trains can indeed carry more people than roads.  I’m not even going to challenge your claim that parking and arrivals at the stations wouldn’t impact train capacity in a negative way.  I’m going to ignore that kiss and ride train trips generate double the number of trips on feeder roads.  I’ll give you credit for not needing parking AND not impacting volumes on feeder roads.  Okay?  Hey, it’s a new year and I just got a generous bonus from the Koch Brothers.  I can afford to be generous.

    I’m even going to help you make your case a better one.  Something you didn’t consider (I gave you a pretty good hint, BTW) is that trains can carry their passengers faster than expressways–not counting station times, of course.  You didn’t get the extra credit but, FYI, highways operate at peak capacity in the low to mid 30s mph.

    So now I’m wondering.  If trains can move sooooo many passengers, how come they need subsidies, at all?  Why do they have to lean on the presumably less efficient highways to give them operating subsidies?  Did you ever wonder about that? Like, shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Shouldn’t all those bus and train riders be subsidizing the highway users?  Did you ever wonder why highways, as inefficient as they are, are able to generate sufficient revenue to give 15.5 percent of it to much more efficient transit?

    The article we’re both commenting on (remember that?) says, why “Transit’s Not Bleeding the Taxpayer Dry — Roads Are”.

    So, here’s the math I don’t understand.  How can it be that drivers–100 percent of whom are gas taxpayers (okay, except for electric cars) and are donating 2.86 cents per gallon of gas they buy to transit riders ( many of whom don’t pay any taxes–transit or other), are bleeding the taxpayer?

  25. John,

    Actually highways are typically most efficient once one is above 40 MPH, but there are very few highways with that as a speed limit, hence my using 55 MPH.

    As for your question, the answer requires providing some history. Passenger trains at one time used to cover their expenses, or more correctly their operating expenses with maybe something left over for either profit or capital work. But predominately passenger trains worked because they used the same tracks as freight trains.

    Then Government interfered in the free market by subsidizing roads & planes and for good measure they taxed the trains to help build the highways. The Fed imposed a 4.3 cents per gallon fuel tax on the diesel fuel used and poured that into the Highway Trust Fund. Additionally a passenger rail ticket tax imposed during WWII to help fund the war effort and that was continued after the war to pay down the debt incurred, was redirected into the HTF in 1956. That ended with Amtrak’s formation, while the fuel tax was redirected into the General fund in 1993.

    Between driving appearing to be cheaper to the consumer thanks to the subsidies and the RR’s getting tired of subsidizing their competition, rail service started a decline. There were other factors too, like buses, loss of mail, etc., but those were major reasons for the RR’s wanting out of passenger rail.

    That decline continued until the late 70’s when cities finally started to realize that they couldn’t build enough highways and widen existing ones for lack of land and the costs. Trains also got a big boost when President Reagan decided to send some of the fuel tax revenues over to transit, although that money is not devoted exclusively to trains.

    But despite that, bus ridership has remained largely the same since the 70’s, while train ridership has nearly doubled. People are finally realizing that while we don’t want to throw away our roads, that we also need trains.

    As for why trains still need a subsidy, part of the issue is that we haven’t rebuilt ridership back to the critical mass needed. Another part of the issue is that today trains are largely used for commuting, which makes for some interesting cost management issues. And finally, part of the problem remains the fact that as I noted in an earlier post, we driers still get a hefty subsidy to drive. While I don’t advocate taking away that subsidy, as it would destroy our economy, the simple fact is that train operators can’t raise prices enough to cover costs when people think that the only cost of driving is the gas in their tank.

    But every time gas prices rise, transit ridership soars showing that people are choosing their cars because they think that it is cheaper to drive thanks to the subsidies.

  26. Friends,

    The cited SSTI study is flawed in many ways.  If I lived in WS, I’d take the time to outline all the errors.  What’s the matter with the professors out there?  Do they even read the garbage put out by their grad students?

    The report consists of two presumed myths, supposedly debunked by some kind of unspecified calculations performed on data from no less than 29 tables which are based on unverified estimates from 50 states.  The data were “adjusted” by the author(s), based on undocumented discussions with WisDOT officials because they (the data) were “erroneous” in some unspecified way.

    If the copied and pasted tables and the title page are removed, the 34-page report becomes an unimpressive 2-1/2 pages.

    The unidentified** authors don’t even attempt to define the concept that is the basis of the study.  What is a subsidy?  There is no universal agreement.  Failure to define it leads to faulty suppositions and the erroneous conclusion that there is a “big diversion…from taxpayers to roads, not the other way around.”

    To state a so called “myth” starting with “The Wisconsin road lobby likes to pretend that…”, rather strongly suggests the unidentified** author(s) predisposition on its conclusion.

    Now, unfortunately, because there are so many who have been looking for something…anything…to support their mantra (Roads have never paid for themselves!), the conclusion of this presumed scholarly work has spread through the Internet like the bad joke it is.

    **  Not to blame them for hiding in anonymity …I wouldn’t be proud of this, either!

  27. John,

    Here’s a bit more for you to consider, although I note upfront that this compares Amtrak and not “transit” as being discussed here. But it will give you some idea of what I’m talking about when it comes to taxes and such.

    According to the Taxpayer’s Receipt for 2009, a married couple with two kids and income of $80K paid $3.83 towards Amtrak via their Federal Income tax. That same couple paid $110.06 towards our highways. That’s income tax dollars, not fuel taxes. If they drove, then they of course paid even more.

    A retired, married couple with income of $100K paid $3.11 towards Amtrak and $89.38 towards the highways, even if they can no longer drive a car, much less own one.

    When it comes to public transit, the buses seem to have the lowest income per rider, with subways, El’s, and light rail averaging a bit better, and commuter rail having the highest income average per rider. So those on transit who are paying income tax are indeed paying taxes to help the driver. And everyone pays property taxes in some form, be it directly or via their landlord, so again with property taxes paving most local streets they are subsidizing the driver every time they are on transit.

    Government has created quite a tangled web of things if you ask me; but the reality is that all forms of transit, save walking and maybe horseback riding, get subsidies.

  28. I’m I having a déjà vu experience here, Ahblid, or have we had this conversation before?

    Lets look at the $80K couple.  Their $110.06 contribution towards highways supports 4,872 billion passenger-miles on roads and their $3.83 supports 1.2 billion passenger-miles on Amtrak.

    Does it bother you that (for that matter, does it even occur to you that) this couple is supporting highways at the rate of $0.0226 per billion passenger-miles vs. $3.19 per billion p-m for Amtrak?  On a per passenger-mile basis, they are already supporting Amtrak at a rate that is 141 TIMES as great as highways.

    If the amount this couple pays toward roads is held constant ($110.06) and the contribution toward Amtrak was proportional to passenger-miles of travel, Amtrak would get $0.027.

     So you see, Amtrak is already getting much more than its fair share from this couple.

    It’s erroneous to say that Amtrak should get more per taxpayer subsidy per taxpayer when it is already getting much more per unit of service provided.

    Last year, (thanks, no doubt, to Harry Reid) our Government subsidized air travel between Ely, Nevada (pop. 4,049) and Las Vegas.  The average cost to the public was $0.006 per capita.  You might say that’s insignificant on a per person contribution basis.

    But, I will suggest that the subsidy to Nevada is an outrage because I use benefits in the denominator of my equation.  The $1.8 million annual subsidy to Nevada equates to over $4,000 per passenger-trip.

    It’s true. Our Government has indeed created a tangled web of transferring money from one pocket to another.  There’s little question that incentives are lopsided the the economic playing field is tilted.  Realistically, a fix is probably unattainable.

  29. John,

    Yes, we’ve had similar conversations in the past. Additionally as I told you in a post yesterday, where I addressed your numbers & DD’s numbers, have fun explaining out National debt to your grandkids by telling them “well at least we kept the passenger mile costs low.”

    Don’t worry too much about the Trillions of debt due to the roads, worry about that $37 Billion or so that we gave to Amtrak. It’s going to be so much harder to pay off that $37 Billion, than the Trillions caused by the roads. And if we hadn’t started subsidizing the roads, we wouldn’t now be subsidizing Amtrak. The culprit here is the highways; government interfered in the Free Market and turned something that used to pay for itself into something that needs subsidies. And then for good measure, they saddled us with the huge debt caused by the highways.

    Next, taking a big number and dividing it by another big number produces a small number. But it doesn’t make the big number look any better when we’re talking debt! In just 3 years the Fed has added $62 Billion to the debt load for highways. Again, in its 40 years of existance Amtrak hasn’t even received $40 Billion.

    It’s also worth noting that for many people that $3.83 is their only contribution to Amtrak, although some states do further subsidize Amtrak. But for everyone there are additional subsidies to the roads & highways, even if they don’t drive and pay gas taxes.

    By the way, and for the record, Amtrak’s total passenger miles for fiscal 2011 was over 6.5 billion miles; not 1.2 billion.

  30. I’m not worried about how to explain the national debt to anybody.  I know that highways had nothing to do with it.  I am tired of explaining that to you, though.

    If you think transportation isn’t important to the economy, Google it.  If you don’t think highways carry the vast proportion of passenger travel, Google it.  Rail is important in transporting freight.  But, in the big picture, passenger rail transportation is an insignificant contributor to the economy.  If Amtrak  disappeared tomorrow, the economy wouldn’t skip a beat.

    “…taking a big number and dividing it by another big number produces a small number. But it doesn’t make the big number look any better….”  What the heck are you talking about?

    You seem to want to focus on how much various subsidies affect debt.  I despise all subsidies, but since we have them and can’t seem the shake them, I prefer to compare subsidies by how much return the economy sees from them.  All the big numbers and all the small numbers agree:  We get more value (ROI) from our highway subsidies than we do from our rail subsidies.

  31. Well then I regret to inform you that you are deluding yourself. Again, Subsidyscope proves that we drivers aren’t paying the full costs of our highways. And back when we first started building highways, the amount of people driving and paying the fuel tax was very small. Which is why the Fed had to tax the RR’s and borrow profusely to get things started.

    And then of course there is the simple fact that the Federal fuel tax was never intended to pay for our highways. It was enacted to help pay down our National Debt in 1932 by then President Herbert Hoover.

    Congress & President Eisenhower borrowed those funds for the highways. But the 1956 Highway Act called for the fuel tax to return to paying on the debt in 1972. Instead Congress continues the diversion.

    Hence, building our highways has easily added at least $1 Trillion to our debt and probably a lot more with interest added in and all those missed payments.

    And I know that transportation is very important, better than you apparently, since I know that we need all forms of it. You want to put all of our eggs in one basket. I know that we cannot do that! We cannot afford it and we don’t have the land within our major cities to build more highways and expand the existing ones.

    Additionally, depending on just where you live you might or might not notice if Amtrak went away. But this country sure would. Monies to improve tracks for Amtrak also improve freight service. And people on Amtrak aren’t on the roads. Yes, the long distance trains might not make a huge difference in things, but if the 5.5 million riders on Amtrak last year in California suddenly had to take to the roads, you’d notice it. People in the Chicago area would notice it. People in the Northeast would definitely notice it. Especially since some of those subsidies go into the tracks that multiple commuter RR’s use, so it’s not just the thousands of riders each day on Amtrak in the NE, it’s hundreds of thousands of riders.

    And all of that would drag down transportation and therefore our economy.

  32. I’m talking about the fact that getting a low subsidy per passenger mile doesn’t make the fact that the Fed just borrowed 19.5 Billion for our highways last year a good thing. Let’s pretend for a moment that you are a banker.

    A couple with 2 kids come in wanting a mortgage for $900K to buy a 20 room mansion. They don’t have enough income to really justify the loan and you turn them down. Now, in comes another couple with 10 kids wanting the same loan for the same house and also not having enough income to justify the loan. Yet you grant them the loan because the cost per kid per room is lower than it was for the first couple. This is the logic that you want to apply to the highways.

    You want to say that it doesn’t matter that we’re borrowing money at a rate 13 times that for Amtrak simply because the cost per passenger mile is lower. That’s not even the true cost either, since again states, cities, & counties further subsidize the highways. And a driver sitting on a city street is still paying for a highway that they’re not using, while not paying for that street.

    Besides, the cost per passenger mile is not a ROI. And if you look for it, we get considerable ROI from our trains. For example, according to the Texas Transportation Institute if all public transit in this country were discontinued tomorrow, their best estimate is that would add 796 Million hours in delays to drivers, waste an extra 303 Million gallons of fuel sitting in traffic, and cost drivers $16.8 Billion annually due to the delays. Presently nearly half of all passengers moved are moved by rail. And rail actually moves people further than the buses, as more than half the passenger miles occur on rail in this country. Total passenger miles in the US on all forms of public transit in 2010 were 52,627.2 Million miles and rail accounted for 29,353.3 million of that total.

    So if we take away those trains, you are most certainly going to notice it!

  33. “…it’s not just the thousands of riders each day on Amtrak in the NE, it’s hundreds of thousands of riders….”

    There you, go overlooking the scale again.  Must be that thing you have with big numbers and small numbers.  

    When you divide that little 6-digit number by that big 9-digit number, you get a teensy tiny 0.001, meaning that hundreds of thousands of train riders each day on Amtrak is an insignificant one tenth of one percent of the hundreds of millions of Americans each day on highways.

    Yeah, I know there are a small handful of corridors where Amtrak shows signs of life.  But, on a national scale, it’s a drop in the bucket.

  34. John,

    According to the US Census Bureau there is only slightly more than 308 Million American’s and fully 30% of them cannot even drive a car at all, much less take it out on a highway. Another 32 million American’s take public transit each day, also meaning that they aren’t out on a highway in their cars. Additionally many drivers never see an Interstate Highway during their daily commute.

    So at best, you might find maybe 100 million to maybe 150 million American’s out on the highway each day, but certainly not “hundreds of millions.”

    And you should have read my second post, the one where I talked about the added costs to drivers if we shut down transit, which is what this article is all about. Because again, as those numbers show, you’d notice things a whole lot if we get rid of transit and in particular those passenger trains that you abhor.

  35. One more time, ahblid.  I don’t abhor passenger trains.  What I abhor is the transfer of wealth to ventures that create little or no return on the investment.  I don’t abhor corn but I abhor the Government paying farmers not to grow it.  I don’t abhor airplanes but I abhor the Government’s $4,100 per trip subsidy of airfares in and out of Ely, Nevada.  I don’t abhor bridges but I abhor the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

    My numbers take into account both the 30% of Americans who can’t drive AND the 99% who don’t use Amtrak.  They account for the 32 million Americans who take public transit twice a day as well as the 311 million who take an average of four road trips a day.  …or, if you prefer, the 100 million Americans who take an average of 12.44 road trips a day.  …or the 150 million Americans who take an average of 8.29 road trips a day.

    The point is that Americans take around 450 billion trips per year and Amtrak accounts for only 30 million (one in 15,000).  It bears repeating that, while the average American takes 4 road trips per day, he takes one Amtrak trip every 10-1/2 years (a round trip once every 21 years!)

    The article you’re commenting on is about the cost to drivers if we shut down transit?  The article I’ve been commenting on is the one that claims roads are bleeding the taxpayer dry.  One of us has been commenting on the wrong article.

  36. John,

    With the utmost respect, your problem is two-fold; one, you aren’t measuring ROI properly and second, you aren’t using the correct numbers and looking at the full picture.

    I’ll start by returning to my earlier example with the banker. You want to bankrupt the bank, or in this case the country, simple because the cost per passenger mile is lower. Or at least you believe that it’s lower. According to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics in 2007, the latest data available, this country spent 122.289 Billion just on highways. Of that, the users paid 51% or $62.367 Billion, meaning that another $59.921 Billion had to be found via other means.

    Total transit spending in 2007 according to the BTS was $45.821 Billion. The National Transit Database reports that actual spending for transit in 2007 was $47.248 Billion, slightly higher than the BTS. However, the NTD data also tells us that the users covered $10.586 Billion of the total expenses, meaning that the taxpayers laid out $36.662 Billion.

    Just on the strength of those numbers alone it’s easy to see why our roads are bankrupting us faster than transit. Just for the Interstate Highways we spent nearly $23 Billion more in non-user dollars than we spent for transit. They don’t even provide the data, or at least so far I’ve been unable to find it, for how much got spent on local streets. And only a few states share any gas tax dollars with local cities & municipalities, most streets are paved with property taxes making the disparity even worse.

    And returning to that $36 Billion spent on transit, including capital dollars, rail transit spending represents a little less than half that total $15.478 Billion, yet rail has more passenger miles than all other forms of transit combined. Rail moved 29.2 billion passenger miles, buses only 20.388 billion and buses run on those subsidized roads, total of all transit 51.873 billon pax/miles. Also of note, even with capital expenses included, rail riders cover 27% of their costs, bus riders only 23%. And again, the bus numbers don’t include any allowance for road subsidies, meaning that an even greater portion of a bus ride is being subsidized. Translation, we’re getting the best bang for our buck with rail. And we’re getting more people off those over crowded and expensive road network.

    Now let’s turn to your contention about the benefit of highways. The BTS does report that on average each American does make 4 trips per day. However, that’s not 4 trips per person on a highway. It’s just 4 trips per day. That same BTS report tells us that only 87% of the trips even took place in a car; the rest were on public transit, walking, bike, etc. So already we’re down to basically 3.5 trips per day, per American take place in a car.

    And of that 87% that did take place in a car, while they don’t report it, the odds are very good that at least 50% of those trips were on local streets only and not on highways. Frankly, I suspect an even higher number of those trips take place on local streets, but I’m willing to split it in half. So at best, 1.75 of those 4 trips per person is taking place on a highway and it’s almost certainly lower than that.

    Finally, I do apologize for phrasing things badly in that one sentence. I meant that I was returning the topic back to that of this story “Transit’s not bleeding taxpayers dry – Roads are”, with my post about transit, rather than about Amtrak which we were discussing. Not that the story was about the cost to drivers if transit shut down. And we both got off topic, partly my fault since I tried to provide you with an example in the difference of tax spending that involved Amtrak, but was comparable to transit, and then you took the ball and ran with it and I followed.

  37. John,
    No, I hadn’t seen that yet.

    But note that the report doesn’t say that trains are bad.  It says that they recommend that the project not proceed because neither the State nor the Fed has stepped up to the plate to fully commit to the project.  Something that is very foolish on their part, but that’s a discussion for a topic on HSR, not transit.

  38. Joe Heath, in “The Efficient Society” has remarked that the fair way to pay for roads would be to divide all the road costs by the road-miles traveled by everybody in a year, then charge everybody by the road-mile.  For that, you’d have to track every trip, which is impossible…or is it?

    Within cities, at least, the age where cameras at intersections track every license plate is just about upon us.  The privacy loss would creep everybody out, but you could do it.  And should, morally – anything else is a subsidy.

  39. @ Roy  The technology wouldnt even be needed.  Most states require cars to be inspected yearly.  Track the mileage from there.  Make the inspectors turn over the mileage information to the state and send the bill that way.  That way there is no need to invest in cameras or tracking devices.  Less money spent, less invasive.  Everyone wins.

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