Does transit get too little funding?

One of the common arguments I hear is that transit is underfunded. Now, this is a subjective question. For those who believe that having transit is absolutely vital to cities, no amount would be enough. So that’s not the point.

The other argument that I hear is that we spend too much on highways rather than transit. Again, subjective. There’s no way to suss this question easily enough for a blog post.

But we can take a look at what people seem to believe is a disparity in funding.

This is the graphic you are most likely to see when we discuss differences between highway and transit funding:

Ok, so of the total, highways get about 55 to 60 percent and transit gets 17 percent on average over the time period, but by the end of the time period, transit’s share has risen to about 20 percent and highways has gone to about 54 percent.

So that’s a pretty big difference in funding. But when you factor in the passenger miles served, the calculus changes. In the following graphic, I have assigned 100 percent of the spending on highways to passenger cars–a major overstatement, but it serves the point. It’s an overstatement because highways also serve trucks (a big deal), motorcycles and some transit (less of a big deal.)




My transit advocate friends will patronize me at this point and lecture me about how I’m not factoring in the external costs of the cars–and that’s true.

But I am not sure that external costs are relevant to expenditure fairness. Whether we factor in external costs or not is relevant to tax policy, for sure, but it’s probably not relevant to the budget equity arguments often made. It’s one thing to talk about optimum investment, which would require marginal social cost: it’s another to try to figure out if transit exists is “David” to auto’s “Goliath”.

Here, we’re trying to figure out if transit riders are getting the shaft. Are they getting the shaft (the transit advocate side)? Or are they rolling in dough they don’t need (the Reason foundation argument)?

This is one of the few times I actually might believe the apples and oranges arguments about comparing. Transit is in a building stage, but highways, for the most part, are in the maintenance phase. We could argue ourselves in circles: to reach investment parity, we’d need to double the transit numbers per passenger mile, etc, etc.

I just don’t know what I think. I need to fiddle with the numbers more.

All these data are from BTS, btw.

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4 thoughts on “Does transit get too little funding?

  1. Or we could acknowledge that in transit, the capital costs and most of the operating costs are paid by a public agency (and thus the taxpayer). If all cars were the property of a public agency, and fuel and maintenance were taxpayer-paid, the expenditure pattern would look slightly different.

    My guess–and this one should be relatively easy to verify, BTW–is that if you put public and private expenditures together, the per-passenger-mile costs of public transit are probably only a small bit larger than those for the private automobile. The difference is probably very close in size to the difference in per-passenger externalities between the two modes–certainly in the same order of magnitude, and probably differing by no more than a couple hundred percent.

    • Again, Peter, you’re right, but I think your statement matters more for optimum investment arguments than it does for budget expenditure fairness questions. So drivers are paying their private costs, they are paying for O & M of their system. And they are also paying a pretty big share of the transit expenditures. Transit doesn’t really come out of the general taxpayers’ pockets–I think we might be better of if it did, actually, but that’s a different argument for a different day. It may be that when you treat all costs as simple costs–and you don’t break out public expenditures–we hit some form of parity. I’m just not sure; I think we’d need to look at much longer time periods.

      We also would have to, I think to get at your point–look at the private costs of time. While transit users don’t pay for drivers, they are spending their time on system which is what drivers are paying to avoid.

  2. There’s a problem with using passenger miles as a denominator. That assumes that going farther is better. Most successful transit systems serve tightly knit areas where the commute distances are small (maybe 1 or 2 miles instead of ten or fifteen) but everybody still gets to work. Is a mode of travel really more effective because it takes 5 times the distance to reach your destination? This just released study goes to a similar point: http://www.ceosforcities.org/work/driven-apart; current highway performance measurements reward reducing congestion even if it takes twice as long to get to your destination. This is even true for transit. This measure would reward inefficient bus systems that require users to travel many extra miles and transfer to reach their destination rather than taking a direct route.

    A better measure to compare transit to auto might be trips served. I suspect you would still find that transit comes out higher but it would be a more fair measure. At that point we should also consider that some transit systems are basically subsidies for folks who can’t (or can’t afford to) drive whereas some transit systems serve a transportation efficiency purpose; maybe paying for poor people’s cabs (or flexshuttles or closer-in housing) would be more effective than driving around a half empty bus in a suburban area but it’s no replacement for high traffic bus lines or train routes that carry thousands of people per hour. It might be interesting to separate out rail from bus. Another interesting question is the “trip not taken”. Once you take transit to work you are likely to walk to lunch or the post office rather than driving, resulting in miles averted meaning less demand for roadway capacity; arguably those walk trips are attributable to transit as well even though you never step on a vehicle.

    Also worth considering is the price of parking which is legally mandated in most cities serving as a hidden tax on property owners and users.

    Does this analysis account for all road expenditures or just federal/highways?

    • These little graphics don’t deserve to be called “an analysis”–this is state and federal expenditures, so there aren’t any local funds in there in there at all. Parking isn’t really relevant–remember that the original question didn’t start with taxes, it started with expenditures. So while I empathize with the parking arguments, I don’t know that we can treat taxes as expenditures. The original thinking was the whole transit v highways arguments we’re always having and trying to sort through what the real issues are in terms of budgets and expenditures. I’m not sure I’m convinced that transit is underfunded relative to cars or that the relative expenditure argument really makes any sense to me as a point of equity: it could be, for example that highways and transit are at EXACT parity in terms of expenditures but one would STILL be underfunded in terms of providing good service.

      I don’t agree with you on trips. Trips can be misleading since we mostly have data on unlinked trips. Passenger miles captures your concern: a passenger mile is a mile even if it’s the same stretch of roadway for dinky trips. The measure can go up with either passengers or miles. We’re aggregating service, and so distances do matter to some degree–it may the case that passenger care about trips rather than distances (and you’re right), but as a system, I do care about miles of coverage and distances traveled, too.

      However, I agree in general that transit output is not well-captured by a bunch of measures. Feel free to innovate. But I won’t sign off on trips.

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