All Hail! Gov’t Workers Using Uber Way Too Much

Federal workers spent 28 percent more money on rental cars and 10 times as much on ride share for business travel than the previous year, records show

Federal workers spent $3.5 billion on transportation costs in the 2018 fiscal year, with about 71 percent on flights and 18 percent on rental cars. Image: Garen M.
Federal workers spent $3.5 billion on transportation costs in the 2018 fiscal year, with about 71 percent on flights and 18 percent on rental cars. Image: Garen M.

There’s an app for fat.

Government workers are turning to Uber, Lyft and other app-based taxis to ferry them around on business trips, with a 922-percent increase in those rides from fiscal year 2017 to 2018, newly released records from the General Services Administration show. At the same time, workers are using less transit.

From July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018, government employees spent just $645,653 on 25,945 rides on services like Uber. But in the next 12-month period, workers took 227,002 Uber and Lyft trips at a cost of $6.6 million — a tenfold increase.

Department of Homeland Security workers reimbursed the most on Uber and Lyft rides of any federal agency in the 2018 fiscal year, spending a little over $1.1 million on 31,452 trips for an average of $35.57 per ride, GSA records show. Department of Health and Human Services workers also indulged in ride-hail apps at a cost of $903,280 for 31,003 rides, followed by the Department of Justice, whose attorneys spent $837,235 on 27,052 rides, records show.

App-based taxis account for only 0.06 percent of the entire $10-billion-plus travel budget for the federal bureaucracy, but it was the fastest growing mode of transportation federal employees use. Overall, federal expenses for all of its many trips were up 10 percent in fiscal year 2018, the first full 12-month period overseen by President Trump.

The use of Uber and Lyft by federal employees came up last week, with House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio threatening to (metaphorically) delete the rides-hail companies’ apps from workers’ phones after Uber and Lyft snubbed a congressional hearing and ignored his questions about passenger safety.

“I’m increasingly concerned about Uber and Lyft orchestrating a race to the bottom on common sense safety practices,” DeFazio said in a statement to Streetsblog. “I believe we can and should do more to increase passenger safety. … In addition, the hearing specifically prompted me to consider if current law needs to be tweaked to ensure that Federal employees on official travel are safe when they use transportation services provided by transportation network companies [i.e. Uber, Lyft, et al].”

Spending on Uber and Lyft could be even higher in next year’s expense reports thanks to the Modernizing Government Travel Act. The federal regulation, for which Uber and Lyft both lobbied, would make it significantly easier for workers to reimburse those companies and other “innovative mobility technology companies” for business travel.

Sponsored in 2016 by failed presidential candidate Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), retiring representative Will Hurd (R-Texas), and soon-to-be-retired congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the act passed in 2017, effectively giving the mobility companies a cut of the multibillion dollar federal expense budget.

“The federal government does not have to lag behind-the-times with antiquated policies,” Hurd said in 2016. “This bill finally allows federal agencies to catch up with the private sector and moves the needle toward a more innovative and responsive government.”

The increased costs also come as federal workers are using far more rental cars (getting $639 million in reimbursements for 3.1 million trips, up from $500 million for 1.8 million trips a year ago); plenty of conventional taxis ($60 million for 1.3 million rides in FY18); and lots of flights ($2.5 million for 4.3 million flights last year versus $2.3 million for 3.7 million flights in 2017).

Meanwhile, federal employees are taking fewer trips on far less expensive subways, buses, and trains — a mode of travel that could save taxpayers money. The sheer number of trips was down from 1.9 million in FY17 to 493,129 in FY18 — a drop of 74 percent.

This decline is a budget buster for the federal government, as transit fares cost workers an average of $15.99 per trip compared with a rental car which cost $136.69 per trip on average, a conventional taxi ($47.67), or an Uber ($29.07). Transit is by far the cheapest mode for which federal workers get reimbursed.

Of course, there are bigger line items in the federal budget. Roughly three quarters of federal workers’ travel expenses went to flights — airfare amounts to roughly 66 percent of the U.S. government’s $3.5 billion in transportation costs in FY18. Rental car fees accounted for the second highest amount in travel costs, roughly 18 percent, followed by reimbursements for the use of privately owned vehicles, at 9 percent.

The federal government is an extraordinarily complex bureaucracy so it makes sense that different federal agencies use different modes of transportation more often to match their missions.

The most frequent flyers are the Department of Defense, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department whose employees travel internationally or crisscross the country. Defense workers spent $1.6 billion on airfare on 2.5 million flights — good for 46 percent of all transportation expenses filed in FY18 and 10 times the second most-profligate agencies, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, whose workers each spent $162 million on plane tickets, records show. Attorneys with the Justice Department spent $106 million on flights, records show (flights to Europe taken by Attorney General William Barr that are now part of the impeachment inquiry won’t show up in this report, but will be in the FY2019 report).

After their flights DoD workers headed straight for the rental car lot, spending $453 million on 2.5 million trips in FY18. Homeland Security officials spent the second most on rental cars ($92 million), followed by Department of Transportation ($15.5 million) and the Department of Interior ($11.4 million), records showed.

Homeland Security staffers splurged more than any agency on cabs, at a cost of $16 million in FY18, followed by State ($10 million), Justice ($7 million), and Health and Human Services ($6.8 million), while DHS workers also spent another $1.1 million, the most among all agencies, followed by Veterans Affairs ($939,853), HHS ($903,280), and DOJ ($837,235).

A Department of Justice spokeswoman told Streetsblog that the agency does not track how its workers spend money on travel. Other federal agency reps did not respond by deadline.

Other agencies vastly preferred mass transit. NASA workers spent an impressive $2.7 million on buses and subways on business trips in FY18, while Treasury Department workers added $705,640, followed by the USDA ($651,573) and the National Science Foundation ($425,813).

Department of Defense workers also liked taking Amtrak and regional rail when they could. Defense staffers spent $3.2 million in FY18, followed by Department of Housing and Urban Development workers who spent $2 million, DOJ ($1.5 million) and the state department ($1.1 million).

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