The anti-federalist case for transit funding

So I’m getting email after email and snarky comment after another that I’m anti-transit simply because I don’t necessarily want to get on board with federal funding for everything from sidewalks to trolleys. Now, I know better than to expect nuance from the interwebs, but still. Honestly people. How many gillions of posts does one have to write about transit to demonstrate their love? How many years do you have to spend researching it, teaching it, and riding it?

Let’s look at some possible advantages to the anti-federalist position.

First all, there are some compelling reasons for getting rid of the Federal gas tax entirely rather than squabbling over it, if you are pro-transit, anti-highway person. Or just returning the money to its source states.


Well, places with major urban areas like California tend to be donor states in the distribution of the Federal gas tax. We put in more than we get out. California transit could be better off tomorrow if we eliminated the federal gas tax by 18 cents and raised the state gas tax in California by 18 cents. Motorists would pay the exact same they pay now. The latter move would mean we keep that revenue in state instead of sending it to little used highways in Montana and Mississippi. Ditto New York. Ditto Ohio. Ditto all the donor states.

The large donor states are always, always the ones with major metros in them. So by taking their gas tax dollars and apportioning it at the federal level, with comparatively small amounts dedicated transit funds, we spread the revenues over a larger geography than makes sense if you want more funding for urban projects.

So put that in your federalist pipe and smoke it.

Finally, even though nobody (but meany mean pants me) likes the idea of funding transit programs out of the general fund, I think they are being a bit knee-jerk in their rejection of the idea. The Highway Trust Fund, which everybody is dancing in circles over, is just dwindling in purchasing power because the tax hasn’t been updated in so long. I don’t see any updates on the horizon.

But with general fund allocations, there’s nothing that keeps the Feds from saying they want to allocate $100 billion to transit every single year if they want to. It’s not limited by gas tax receipts…and if America really is an urban nation, there may be big, long-term advantages to going with general fund allocations for urban programs. Look at Obama’s budget last year: he found 8 billion for his high speed rail project out of the general fund for one mode. Now, that budget died a miserable death, but what if he had had a cooperative Congress? The Feds spend $9 billion a year now out of the gas tax, so it’s not a foregone conclusion that general funds grants for transit would be lower than dedicated funds.

The main disadvantage of that approach is the political instability. The funds allocated out of the HTF for transit are pretty stable year after year. But stability may be less useful to capital projects than the big allocations possible out of the general fund, at least over the long term, than wrangling over the HTF which is going to yield less and less over time–increasing competition for projects and discouraging heavier capital investments. We’re already feeling that effect. Why do you think we already have so much light rail instead of commuter rail built all over the west coast?


One thought on “The anti-federalist case for transit funding

  1. On the other hand, the federal government is further removed from the nitty gritty of local and regional transportation decisions so it seems to me the ideal place to push for projects that are locally/regionally unpopular but meet broader goals like climate change mitigation, livability, and equity. The FTA has been great recently in pushing the envelope on setting standards on its grantees for equity analyses of plans, projects, and programs (e.g., Oakland Airport Connector, updates to EJ and Title VI circulars). If you remove the federal role, you remove this strong force.

    Also, since state DOTs have been systematically disempowered over the past several decades in favor of MPOs, if we devolve the tax to them, we’d potentially end up with even stronger “regions,” which are themselves composed of locals. I’m not sure I trust them to enact policy that’s in the state’s (and surely not the nation’s) interest.

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