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.

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

  1. So… once we de-fund rural transportation, how will you get your Amazon order? Or your made-in-China goods (if you live on the East coast)? Or will you “shop local” for everything?

  2. > I don’t have the other information in front of me, but as I recall, this amounts to something like 60 cents per gallon.

    Yes that’s about right, but so what? It’s still only $.03/mi, on top of the $.50+/mi you’re already paying to drive. Which is why raising the price of gasoline by $.60/gal or more barely made a dent in driving the last few years.

  3. If it’s so little, then there should be no fuss at all about raising gas taxes that much.

    But we know what the reaction would really be.

  4. Besides, unit cost may not be the most important number to use. Overall cost recovery may be more important.

    You might remember Atlantic Richfield Co., and oil and gasoline firm known as ARCO. This was an eastern company, but it’s been out of business in it home territory for years because it had slightly higher unit costs than its competitors.

    But there is another company that has what you might call a petroleum product, and it sells at an astounding $4,969 per gallon! This firm has no trouble with demand at that price, and is quite profitable.

    We are talking about Chanel No. 5 perfume, which their website suggests goes for $135.00 for a 3.4 ounce bottle.

    The point is this–Amtrak is, the last time I checked, at about 96% operating cost recovery; we only subsidize operations by 4%.

    The highway system might be somewhat different, but its overall cost recovery is about 50% (if you include Amtrak capital costs, it may be about the same).

    The point is, if you were a banker or someone else in the real world, you wouldn’t worry too much about unit costs as you would about cost recovery.

    Amtrak is getting pretty close to going over 100% on operations, and this is in spite of the heavy subsidization of driving.

    Indeed, the only reason we lost railroads is because we have never charged the motorist full cost, but we expected railroads to pay all bills, generate a profit, and pay property taxes, too. That’s a huge handicap to work against, even if you have a transportation mode that is three times as efficient as trucks in fuel consumption, at least that much more efficient than private automobiles, has enormous scalable capacity on a narrow right of way, and at the same time has shown an ability to survive, in freight service, on amazingly low levels of traffic because of that efficiency.

    Hey, I’ve known of railroads that survived on trains that ran only three days per week. They didn’t really make money–they couldn’t afford the track maintenance, and it showed–but they paid their other bills and their taxes, too. No road system does that.

    Oh, and one of those roads used to be right down the street from my house. A new management and more aggressive traffic marketing, combined with a period of expensive diesel fuel at $4 per gallon (which was hard on that inefficient truck competition), got them a lift up to where they sometimes run as many as eight trains per day!

    And the track is much, much better, too.

  5. People are quantitatively challenged and routinely make irrational economic choices because of it. Hence, politicians routinely implement economically irrational policies. But this one is only minorly irrational. The subsidy (per passenger-km) is small; much smaller than that of transit. If you stop subsidizing all transportation, transit would be the big loser here.

    When you double the price of the GWB tolls and raise gasoline up to $3.50/gal, people complain; but people don’t switch to biking across the bridge for free (and no gass). We know now that “demand destruction” starts at about $4/gal; and who knows where for GWB tolls.

  6. Oh, about the “real world”–I might mention I was an auditor for 36 years–plenty of real world experience with real businesses there.

  7. > The point is this–Amtrak is, the last time I checked, at about 96% operating cost recovery; we only subsidize operations by 4%.

    You are comparing apples to oranges here. The “Amtrak” being subsidized is the entire operation; whereas only a small fraction of the automobile operation (a portion of the roads) is subsidized.

    The right comparison here is to compare the subsidy of both systems, with respect to the total cost. Your quoted $.60/gal is about $.03/mi subsidy for autos. Compared to $.50/mi total cost of operation, the subsidy is approx. similar to what you quoted for Amtrak.

    Even if you eliminated all highways and did all non-local transport by trains, you would still have to spend money on local roads — which were 100% subsidized from the general fund before the advent of Federal and State gas taxes.

    > Indeed, the only reason we lost railroads is because we have never charged the motorist full cost…

    Not true at all. Think of trains, autos, etc. as “producers” of a commodity we will call PMT (passenger miles traveled) in a “market” for transportation services. If you look at production over time, you will see that the big story is that the market for PMT greatly expanded because automobiles were able to provide much more PMT to the average consumer than railroads ever could. The PMT provided by railroads never nosedived; it was just eclipsed by a much larger market.

    When you think about it, it’s obvious why automobiles presided over such a huge expansion of mobility: because they go almost anywhere, and wait time for them is zero. Railroads can never match that level of convenience and flexibility. If you removed automobiles from the equation, railroads might pick up some of the slack; but overall, total PMT would plummet.

    > even if you have a transportation mode that is three times as efficient as trucks in fuel consumption

    Even with today’s subsidy structure, trucks are a more expensive way to transport goods than railroads; so why do people use them? They transport 40% of our nation’s goods by mass, and 70% value. Amazon and CA strawberries will never ship packages to your doorstep by railroad, and trucks will never haul coal or iron ore long distances. Meanwhile, intermodal freight bridges the two, providing something faster than traditional rail at lower cost than traditional trucks. But you’re still never going to get CA produce deliveries by rail.

    It should come as no surprise that when you introduce a new way to do things that has different characteristics from what came before, that some of the uses of the former way will switch to the new way. That happens all the time with tech innovation. Take the switch from desktop to laptop computers for example; desktop market share went down (but not to zero) as total market size went up. The same thing happened with the switch from laptops to cellphones. Desktops and laptops still have their purpose and will never go away. But some people found that a cellphone suits their needs better; before there were cellphones, they would have used a laptop or desktop for the same purpose.

  8. The question is, is the transport system we have sustainable?

    There are all sorts of problems with deferred maintenance. We have huge congestion problems around cities of any size, and even in some cases in rural areas. We’ve been through at least two oil wars, and we are definitely vulnerable to oil shocks still. None of this and other things are reflected in the road pricing structure.

    I well recall a trip home from an assignment in Washington, DC, that took 4 hours to travel 100 miles. . .the same trip, by train, can be in 2 hours on a commuter local to West Virginia, and in only 1.5 on an Amtrak intercity train that runs the same route, and it didn’t have the stress and frustration.

    I swore never to drive there again, and so far, I’ve been able to keep that promise, even when it involved a train, a subway, a bus, and a long hike to get where I needed to go–all on one trip!

    In fact, I think that frustration is a lot of what is driving the demand for alternatives to driving these days. This isn’t 1955 anymore. These are no longer the days of “Hot Rod Girl,” “Happy Motoring,” and “See the USA in your Chevrolet.”

  9. We were talking about what is subsidized more. But now the subject has been changed to: (1) the role of transit in cities, and (2) sustainability

    1: Yes, your experience is exactly why we subsidize transit at high levels — because the alternative (no transit) is really not an alternative for large cities. Per-unit costs of almost anything go up the more of it you want. Same thing here: the cost of concentrating large numbers of people together is greater (per person) than the cost of concentrating small numbers of people. Highways might be cheap per passenger-mile, but only as long as vehicles do not try to cluster: they don’t scale well as populations increase.

    2: Electric vehicles allow greater flexibility of energy source than internal combustion engine vehicles — and this flexibility can lead to greater sustainability. All that has very little to do with whether your vehicle is a bus, train or automobile. No need for oil wars for your Tesla.

    > None of this and other things are reflected in the road pricing structure.

    Except that people HAVE to pay with their time. Which has some interesting knock-on effects if you think it through in terms of opportunity cost.

    > The question is, is the transport system we have sustainable?

    No, very little about our modern world is sustainable. Simply switching to public transit does not markedly reduce energy use, compared to driving the same distances in an automobile. If you want to talk sustainability, start investing in e-bike infrastructure.

    > There are all sorts of problems with deferred maintenance.

    And the point is….? NJ’s railroads are as bad as their roads. What does this have to do with subsidies?

  10. If someone doesn’t want to shop local, they can either pay high shipping costs or move to somewhere with a better transportation network.

  11. “Per-unit costs of almost anything go up the more of it you want. Same thing here: the cost of concentrating large numbers of people together is greater (per person) than the cost of concentrating small numbers of people.”

    That’s backwards. Larger numbers of anything usually reduce unit costs, as the fixed costs get distributed over a larger number of units. That’s the principle of mass production.

    It’s why your unit costs for driving are so low, even though the cost recovery ratio is so horrible. All that subsidy is spread over a huge amount of vehicle miles, while the shrunken rail system we have has to spread its fixed costs over a much smaller traffic base (brought about because we actively favored roads, roads, and more roads).

    “Except that people HAVE to pay with their time. Which has some interesting knock-on effects if you think it through in terms of opportunity cost.”

    There are two ways to answer that.

    1. As you observed, my driving time was obscenely longer than taking the train, as well as being more stressful.

    2. In Florida, a person commented to a rail proponent, “Hey, I can drive from —– to —– in four hours. The train takes four and a half hours.”

    The rail proponent replied, “On the train, I can work, eat, snooze, talk with people, or just enjoy the trip for four and a half hours. What do you do in a car for four hours? Drive.”

    Which is a better use of your time–driving or something else?

    Electric vehicles still have the inherent disadvantages of cars. . .higher friction levels, leading to higher energy consumption, plus just capacity problems.

    Self driving versions are supposed to improve capacity as well as safety, but I’m convinced the capacity increase is nowhere near what the proponents claim. Some have suggested a capacity increase of 300%, but experience in railroading with Central Traffic Control with cab signals Automatic Train Stop–or the modern counterpart of Positive Train Control–essentially railroad counterparts to self driving and vehicle to vehicle communication–increases capacity by only 80%. That’s actually nothing to sneeze at, especially when combined with the safety improvements in taking humans out of the loop, but it’s nowhere near what the proponents say we should get. There is also the matter of road maintenance, which electric vehicles aggravate by not paying fuel taxes. You’ll have to change the road revenue model, and that’s going to increase costs. People won’t like that as you well know, even if it isn’t rational.

    As to the failure to maintain railroads in New Jersey vs. highways, well, what does that have to do with anything at all? It says New Jersey doesn’t maintain anything the way they should.

    I would bet that includes school buildings and other state structures, too.

  12. How much does gasoline really cost?

    This link is a bit dated (gasoline was going for about $3.00 per gallon at the time of its posting), but it points out there are a lot of hidden costs.

    What’s notable about this bunch is how conservative it is. . .not only in the relatively modest increase in cost, but in its makeup of people involved in economics and defense. . .hardly what I would call a bunch of tree-loving hippies.

  13. Others have commented on this as well.

    All this is in the civilian world. What’s really interesting is what the military can sometimes be forced to pay because of the operating conditions they run into. For instance, you may have to truck your fuel into a hostile territory, requiring a heavily armed escort. In some cases you have to take diesel fuel for generators into mountains by helicopter. Depending on conditions, the military has estimated that what they call the “fully burdened” cost of fuel to be as high as $500 per gallon!

  14. > That’s backwards. Larger numbers of anything usually reduce unit costs

    OK, you’re right there. But only for some things (eg, mass production), where the raw resources are essentially infinite. But transportation depends on a limited resource (land, and ability of the atmosphere to safely absorb pollution). The more people you want to put into one place, the more elaborate infrastructure you have to build.

    Take Manhattan + NJ, for example, where there’ a plan to spend ~$5b on a new bus terminal, part of a system to get 250,000 NJ commuters into Manhattan every day. Everybody agrees that a similar bus terminal could be built in Secaucus for a lot less. But that would not serve the demand of getting people *into Manhattan*. The more people you want to get *into Manhattan*, the more expensive it tends to become per person.

    Oil and most natural resources work in a similar way. You want a little bit of oil per day, you get it from Saudia Arabia for a production cost of ~$5/barrel, and the price of oil will be low. You want a LOT of oil per day, more than OPEC can produce, and you end up pursuing more expensive sources like fracking, tar sands, etc. The price of oil will be high. We say that natural resources are priced “at the margins.”

    Same with pollution. Run a few “rolling coal” trucks in sparsely populated “Big Sky” country, and nobody cares because (a) pollution levels are pretty low, and (b) there aren’t many people around to get hurt from your pollution. Give everyone in LA a Rolling Coal truck, and millions of residents will be permanently sick. LA has solved this problem through strict pollution controls, which cost everybody in $$ up-front, as well as more expensive gasoline. In the end, the per-unit cost of keeping clean air increases as you want to burn more things: just like in NYC, it’s the price you pay for higher transportation densities.

    > while the shrunken rail system we have has to spread its fixed costs
    over a much smaller traffic base (brought about because we actively
    favored roads, roads, and more roads).

    Really? Last time I checked, (a) freight traffic, which owns most of the rails, is as active as ever; even considering building more track in Wyoming before coal bust, (b) Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor was heavily congested. This doesn’t seem like a case of underused infrastructure.

    >> “Except that people HAVE to pay with their time. Which has some
    >> interesting knock-on effects if you think it through in terms of
    >> opportunity cost.”
    >There are two ways to answer that.

    No… the right answer is to think first. I don’t feel like spelling out the economics of how the time spent driving is a real factor that in peoples’ decision-making.

    > Which is a better use of your time–driving or something else?

    Suffice it to say that not making the trip at all is frequently the best use of my time. Transportation demand is incredibly elastic.

    Look, this is not a general discussion of whether it’s more pleasant to drive or take the train. It is a discussion of the degree to which various forms of transportation are subsidized — and how much those subsidies affect peoples’ choices. So far, we’ve found very little significant subsidies.

    Far more important is the network effect… a better infrastructure in one mode makes it more useful for more trips. Certainly that has promoted increased driving over the past 50 years, and can at times lead to local minima (i.e. car-dependent places that were previously sparsely populated but are no longer, and would do better with more transit and fewer roads).

    But we do ourselves a disservice to just blame it on causes that are easily refuted — the myth that if only the subsidy were lower, everyone would take the train. Just look to Europe for that one… driving is highly anti-subsidized, and transit is highly subsidized, and although transit is used a lot more, driving is still the #1 major way people get around.

  15. Yes, and so is long distance train service and essential air service. It’s all about being a connected cohesive whole instead of isolated shards. Some communities served by trains out west can be 200 miles from an Interstate and not everyone wants to drive long distances, or should.

  16. Highways do not support themselves and rural Interstates are no exception:

    The fact is that all forms of transportation are subsidized.

    And as for rail being more expensive and/or slower, where do you get your information? Shorter distance plays to truckers, but long distance is quite another story. This is why BNSF (for example) carries massive amounts of containerized freight east from Los Angeles and why it has spent billions to improve its line across Arizona and New Mexico.

  17. The article you cite doesn’t break out rural vs. urban Interstates. Rural Interstates are a LOT cheaper, it’s quite possible that gas tax revenues do pay for them.

  18. Your overall comments remind me of an experience from years ago, when our Department of Tar–er, Transportation–was looking at building a new four lane road to take pressure off an older two lane job that dated from the 1920s.

    As you may have noted from earlier comments, I live outside of Washington, DC, in West Virginia, and in fact we have a commuter train here.

    I’ve also driven to Washington, and have seen a 12 lane road that was no fun to be on at all (you can figure out how I had the time to count the 12 lanes).

    Anyway, I suggested we might want to try something different instead of a four lane road. My argument was, look what happened around DC and Baltimore. Why do you want to repeat that? Why do you want to copy those mistakes?

    My alternative was a light rail line, one designed to be a modern version of an interurban. My cost estimated came out to a good $60 million less than the road construction, with comparable or lower maintenance costs (most road or railroad maintenance goes into the substructure, such as taking care of bridges, and that’s the same no matter what’s on it). Most of this cost saving was simply from not moving so much dirt and rock around. Keep in mind this was for a railroad with self-propelled cars as opposed to locomotive hauled trains, so you can tolerate steeper grades.

    I put together a small paper (17 pages) on this. What did I get for my trouble? I was told I was trying to take away people’s cars, I was told I was trying to bring back the horse and buggy, and I was told I was a Communist! That was from the politicians; the engineers gave a better impression, up to a point. They were amazed that a railroad could be so much skinnier than a road. Apparently even though they were professionals, they were totally unfamiliar with rail construction.

    A friend of mine says the real problem in America is that we have ABR syndrome–Anything But Rail.

  19. I’m not so stupid to say we should get rid of cars (though some large cities, and perhaps even some smaller ones, could probably use some car-free zones; heavy auto traffic and pedestrians don’t mix too well). What I’m wanting is a better balance. We don’t have that at all.

    And that lack of balance, from what you call “minor” subsidies (they are pretty hefty in my view!) is what has lead to those oil wars and other problems. We are so out of balance it’s going to take a huge amount of effort to correct for that.

  20. A comment about which is more pleasant–

    Is that something you would totally ignore? Would it be something that’s irrelevant–or is it another factor in choice of mode?

    I argue that it is important. Why put yourself in misery when you don’t have to, even minor misery?

    If it weren’t important, we would still be driving something like a Model T or a military issue Jeep. We wouldn’t have had luxury flyers like the 20th Century Limited or the Super Chief in the past, or the comfortable if not so stylish Amtrak sleepers.

    And we wouldn’t have the styling departments with trained artists and engineers in the automotive industry. (Yeah, it’s retro, but what’s shown still goes on, even the work in clay is still used, though much downgraded in the day of computer-aided design):

  21. Here’s a question I hope someone might answer. . .and it has the advantage of not having a single right answer.

    How big should a road be? In particular, what should a maximum size be?

    I would argue that anything over six lanes is too large. You have navigation problems on something bigger than that. I should know, having driven too damn many times around Washington and Baltimore, when you are looking for you exit, and even well before you can see it, you are trying to get into the correct lane but can’t because of the traffic.

    And you are still stuck in traffic, too. I recounted elsewhere how it took four hours to travel 100 miles from Washington, DC, to my home in West Virginia (most of it spent just getting out of the city), with roads with 12 lanes. More recently, my wife required medical treatment at a hospital in Baltimore, and one of the things that stood out was there was no rush hour; traffic was backed up all day. The only relief seemed to be after 10:00 or so at night.

    If you have more than six lanes, your road is too large, and it’s time to start looking at rail.

    Floor open for comments.

  22. Republicans: We shouldn’t pay for urban transit because it’s “local.” Also, we shouldn’t pay for Amtrak’s interstate long-distance routes because . . . just because.

  23. That’s why all those dishonest articles in the 80’s and 90’s constantly criticizing Amtrak subsidies drove me bonkers, by pretending that vastly greater subsidies for other transportation modes didn’t exist.

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