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America 2050: House Wages War on Transit

Posted by Steve Anderson on Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

From America 2050:

Last week, more than two years after the nation’s last five-year surface transportation law expired, the House of Representatives introduced its proposed legislation for rewriting the nation’s transportation laws. And boy, it is a doozy.

Facing severely reduced gasoline tax receipts, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has proposed to cut many of the non-highway programs in the transportation bill that help give people alternatives to driving. These include things such as Transportation Enhancements, which provide set-asides for local projects that improve the transportation experience in communities (the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal was restored with a Transportation Enhancement grant); and other programs that reduce the environmental impact of transportation and promote pedestrian and biking facilities. The bill also reduces operating funding to Amtrak and cuts a capital grant program to relieve congestion on rail corridors.

The cuts to these programs were largely expected, but what provoked anger and surprise among many transportation experts was a separate measure by Ways and Means, the committee that authorizes the revenues for the transportation bill, that severed the 30-year-old link between highways and transit in the transportation trust fund. Since 1982, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that dedicated a penny of the federal gas tax to transit, transit agencies have had a steady source of reliable federal funding that allows them to keep their systems in good repair, replace outdated infrastructure and equipment and plan for the future. Dedicated funding for transit, which today amounts to 2.86 pennies of the 18.3 cents per gallon gas tax, has allowed systems like the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to pull back from the brink of disinvestment and make five-year capital plans that include projects like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access that are now under way.

This is in contrast to Amtrak, which has never had dedicated funding and relies on annual, unpredictable appropriations from Congress. The House Ways and Means bill, which eliminates the transit trust fund, and stops crediting its replacement — the “alternative transportation fund” — with gas tax revenue, effectively puts all other U.S. transit systems in the same untenable predicament as Amtrak. The committee proposes a one-time, $40 billion transfer from the U.S. general fund to (almost) pay for transit needs in the House’s five-year bill, with no dedicated revenue source in the future.

Certainly, the larger problem here is the gap that has opened up between our national transportation needs and the revenue from federal fuel taxes that have traditionally paid for these needs. But this gap has been growing for half a decade, and there is no reason to punish transit users for it. In fact, it is in part the growing shift to transit use, and walking and biking, that has contributed to lower gasoline tax revenue. These trends should be encouraged, not thwarted.

There are several ways to deal with the transportation funding crisis without reducing the viability of our public transit systems. Ideally, policy makers would face up to the difficult political task of raising new revenue for transportation by raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation. In the longer term, it might be necessary to diversify funding sources by charging for vehicle miles driven, or by implementing a stabilized transportation fuel tax that shifts the burden between wholesale oil producers and retail gasoline sales as the price of oil fluctuates, as proposed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But with little political will to raise gasoline taxes, another option is to accept that the Highway Trust Fund, backed by dwindling gasoline tax revenue, can no longer be relied on and that general fund revenues should be used to pay for transportation. It already has been happening: since 2008, $34.5 billion in general fund revenue has gone to plug the gaps in the trust fund. Instead of fighting it, Congress should recognize that transportation investment is as worthy as health care and other national priorities and pass a bill that recognizes the value of all transportation modes to grease the wheels of the national economy.

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