Had some great conversations with transportation planners and transit geeks alike this Wednesday at the Central Maryland Regional Transit conference. One of the conversation topics was the crapulent state of federal financing of transportation in general, bur especially transit. A phrase I had not heard before was “original intent”, the Republican idea that gas tax revenues should be used for highway projects and nothing but. (I try not to pay too close attention to the machinations of government). If only it were not for transit and other “nonhighway” uses of the gas tax and other tax revenue, then surely we’d be able to fully fund all the nations highways and then some?
Not quite. The gas tax and other “user fee” taxes like vehicle and registration taxes have bumped around 75-80% of the over-hundred-billion yearly cost of building and maintaining 4.5 million lane miles of highway, even without transit and other nonhighway uses. The closest we got in my living memory was in the Gingrich Revolution, just before everything went to deadlock in 1995 and 1996.
I had this debate before with a conservative friend and produced the below graph of trafficway income and expenses for federal, state and local trafficway projects. The green solid areas are the “user fee” gas and other taxes that make good libertarian sense, and the red solid areas are collected from bonds, investments and the general fund (income, sales, and taxes at different levels of government). The black line bumping along the top of that stack is the total annual expenditures for capital and maintenance on the highways. All dollar amounts are in 2010 inflation adjusted dollars, according to the CPI.
The gray dashed line hovering above is the percent of the expenses covered by user fees. Note that it has been stepping down from 80% before 1980, to 70% until 2007, and has lately fallen of to 55% coverage. As Randall O’Toole points out, the trafficways always balance their books. Yes, they do, by raiding the general fund and by issuing new debts. The subsidies for traffic are greater than the subsidies for transit, on the virtue of the sheer size of the traffic network.
But what about this “original intent”? If we left transit to die in the cities, couldn’t we finance all the roads? Below is the same graph as above, with two lines showing the offset for nonhighway uses and transit. The green line is transit offsets, the purple line is nonhighway offsets. Even if we gave all user fees to highway uses, we would still be spending over 60 billion every year of our general tax dollars and debt on traffic. The dashed lines again show the percent covered by user fees, which would at best be 68%. Lower than even the baseline rate 40 years ago.
I have little doubt the original intent of the gas tax was that it go only to roadway projects. That intent was crafted when traffic was offering a new frontier in mobility and space usage, and the gas tax was but one of many transformations we made to accommodate and welcome the car. In the 1920s, not the 1950s, mind you. Motordom saw it as their way of buying their sole rights to the road. Go try walking in a traffic lane if you don’t believe me.
We have learned since then that transit makes traffic work better. Primarily because it takes up less space on the road per passenger. It also peaks at the same time as traffic, on weekday mornings and afternoons. Instead of a predictable jam as traffic approaches capacity, high quality (separate right of way) transit gets everyone where they are going on time and unruffled. Most transit passengers are able to read, write, or relax in a way traffic commuters cannot do within the law.
One last thing. I was surprised when looking at these numbers at the predominance of the states in highway funding. The only time the federal government was really involved in financing the highways was in the 1930s new deal building of the US highways. Instead of a national policy on transportation and traffic, we really have at least 52. Not to mention all the local policies on transportation, for the states that allow differing degrees of home rule. Your local results may vary.