Highway Funding: The Last Bastion of Socialism in America

Since 1956, federal, state and local governments have invested nine times more capital funding in highway subsidies than in transit.

"'A Better Way to Go,' a recent report by the USPIRG Education Fund, provides an illustration comparing cumulative government capital spending on highways versus transit in the United States since 1956. The eye-catching graphic shows that it's not even close.

Since 1956, federal, state and local governments have invested nine times more capital funding in highway subsidies than in transit. In 2004, state governments spent nearly 13 times more public funds on highways than on transit. On top of all that, the process for securing funding for new transit lines is far more onerous and less certain than for highway projects, with the federal government generally picking up a smaller share of the tab for new transit lines than for new highway projects."

Thanks to Aaron Naparstek

Full Story: Highway Funding: The Last Bastion of Socialism in America



I wish

alas, there are lots of bastions of a version of socialism in America.

This piece would be more effective and accuruate if the author would be more genuine and at least state the other side of the ledger. There have been tremendous revenues from gasoline taxes and certainly some from the transit farebox. Let's see it.

Michael Lewyn's picture

The article does have a partial rebuttal

Quoting from the streetsblog post:

"Yglesias also notes:

Of course you can't bring this subject up without legions of people informing you that the gas tax pays for the highways. This simply isn't true. All the funds raised by the gas tax are spent on highways, and then a bunch of additional money is also spent on highways.

Mark Delucchi at the U.C. Davis Institute for Transportation Studies backs that up as well. In a study published last fall, Delucchi found that "current tax and fee payments to the government by motor-vehicle users fall short of government expenditures related to motor-vehicle use by approximately 20 to 70 cents per gallon of all motor fuel." U.S. drivers do not pay their own way."

To be fair, this is certainly not a comprehensive response to the "highways pay for themselves both transit doesn't" argument. But its a start.

The Legions Are Silent

Unfortunately you won't hear the competing view. at least not here. Any dissent no matter how well documented would be met with derision and insult leaving the echo chamber to reverberate the acceptable views.

Transit users pay none of the capital costs and one quarter to one third the operating costs of their travel.

POV users pay all of the operating costs and nearly all the capital costs of both POVs and transit combined.

Operating Costs, Capital Costs, And ...

"Transit users pay none of the capital costs and one quarter to one third the operating costs of their travel. POV users pay all of the operating costs and nearly all the capital costs of both POVs and transit combined."

But future generations will pay the overwhelming external costs.

Charles Siegel

Motorists do not pay all of their own operating costs.

American car owners pay all of their own operating costs only if you neglect to account for minor items like the clean-up of tens of thousands of car crashes, subsidized municipal parking, multi-billion dollar ethanol subsidies, a military presence in America's Persian Gulf gas station... it's a list that goes on.

the socialism line...

For the record, the headline was meant as a kind of satirical response to the all-too-frequently heard argument that mass transit subsidies are "socialism." So, yeah, the headline is, indeed, a little bit ridiculous.

If you click through to the piece, you'll see that the gas tax issue is discussed.

I did

but it isn't quantified, at least not in the graph. Even the TXDOT "study" that I've seen before isn't so much a study as a simple lecture to joe taxpayer that your gas taxes don't go directly to your roads that you drive on.

The Highway Trust Fund takes in about $35BB annually. It's been around quite a while, but I don't have all the historical revenues or I would post it (just the last few years). You might add all those dollars (in 2006 dollars) to the revenue side. APTA or the FTA probably have total farebox revenues, at least since the period covered here.

Both points below by Charles and Robert are well taken. This isn't going to change anyone's mind her about policy direction, but in the name of "education", the graph should account for the revenue side.

Ignores some huge problems

The article talks about the benefits of mass transit without noting that the transition from the car to transit would be nothing short of a sea-change in American life.

Most of the infrastructure for roads would either crumble away or be maintained for buses and the fewer number of people who still had cars. The American auto industry would probably vanish. All jobs associated with cars would be no more. Anything built beyond transit lines would become ghost towns and trillions of dollars worth of roads, homes, and businesses would be wasted.

What is worrisome is that the headlong pursuit of an auto-centric America has been replaced with the notion that the transition to a transit based society will be without serious downsides. Are there any historic parallels of a society voluntarily dumping consumer choices (buying a car and owning a home almost anywhere), letting huge amounts of infrastructure crumble and probably resettling possibly millions of people? The only thing that comes close in modernity would be total war. If it took around 60 years to build a society around the car get to this point, won't it take at least 60 years just to rectify the situation?

Sea-Change In American Life

Of course, a similar sea-change happened after World War II, when the federal government promoted freeway building and suburbanization in order to promote economic growth. And it has had downsides. Older neighborhoods were sliced up by freeways and became less livable and more congested. World energy resources have been depleted. The world is threatened by global warming.

I don't think that suburbs will disappear completely with a shift to transit, any more than the inner cities disappeared completely after World War II. New development will be transit-oriented development. The US will become a country where most people have the option of walking when they leave their homes, as most Americans did before World War II. People won't have as large an economic burden of supporting the automobile and oil industries. Urban freeways will be converted to boulevards or parks, as they have been in San Francisco, Seoul, and other cities.

It will take at least 40 to 60 years to rectify the situation, but this is the time to begin.

Charles Siegel

Good Points

I have been reading about the death of suburbia on planetizen for several months now. You make a good point that there is a tremendous amount of economic and social investment in our suburban, auto-oriented society. I think the mortgage crisis and energy costs are creating change in our cities, but I don't know if this will be the end of the story. Sprawl will return with new fervor if, for example, we are able to drive cheap solar cars in 20 or 30 years. Planners should be continuing to make a compelling case for efficient growth and quality places rather than "I told you so" pronouncements about how the suburbs have failed. Now is the time to retrofit the suburbs and implement the smart growh ideals that got burned out by 2002.

Highways at the state and Federal level are largely funded by gas taxes and other "user fees" while local streets (i.e. the ones with sidewalks and bikepaths) are typically funded through general revenue. There are certainly exceptions this, and I think debating the "user fees vs. multimodalism" issue misses the point: we need to find a sustaining revenue source to fund a total transportation system that recognizes all modes, all providers of those modes and the indirect and direct costs of transportation.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.

City Map Posters are in!

Available in 9 different cities.
City Plate table setting

New Arrival! City Plates

City downtown cores printed on gorgeous decorative collectible porcelain plates.