House Aims to Stop Highway Robbery

An effort to fix the Highway Trust Fund makes liberals stop worrying and love Reagan.


There's not a lot to like in this year's federal transportation bill, or for that matter in any year's transportation bill. But here's one proviso that might get the lead out: 

The House version of the "American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Financing Act of 2012" could end the Highway Trust Fund's transit account—a 1980s concoction whereby a fifth part of your federal gasoline tax goes to fund public transportation. 

Like most reforms these days, this one is the healthful fruit of bankruptcy. Every time you buy a gallon of gas in this nation, you pay 18.2 cents to Uncle Sam. The original rationalization for the federal gas tax was that it was collected in a "Highway Trust Fund" and used to pay for road infrastructure. 

In 1983, a transit account was created [pdf], diverting 20 percent of the trust fund to pay for the mass transit dreams of local potentates. The Highway Trust Fund (which President Barack Obama is reportedly planning to rename "Transportation Trust Fund") has paid for railroad pork all over the country. Here's Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) taking a bow for having spent your gas tax on Atlanta transit developments including the MARTA Smart-Card fare system, the Lovejoy to Griffin Commuter Rail Line, the BeltLine, and something called the Atlanta Inter-Modal Passenger Facility. 

But now the highway trust fund is broke. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the fund ran a deficit of $8 billion in 2011 and will be in the red by $10 billion this year. Eliminating the transit account, which doles out between $2 billion and $4 billion a year, would not close that gap, but the widening deficit has bolstered the argument [pdf] that money collected from drivers should properly be earmarked for roads. Earlier this month the House Ways and Means Committee voted to eliminate the transit account and pay for transit projects out of the general fund. 

This is not the only place on our land mass where public transit dreams have been derailed by broken-government reality. Up in Toronto, hothead Mayor Bob Ford is struggling to dismantle the city's ambitious pre-recession transit plan, and even Ford's opponent in that fight, a city councilor amusingly named Karen Stintz, argues that "our scarce resources" are her motivation for digging a bunch of new subways. 

But eliminating the transit account would be an important step toward ending the tyranny of central planners whose dreams of hipster smart hubs have produced such iron horses as the Detroit People Mover and the Minneapolis Hiawatha Light Rail

Choo-choo buffs all over the land have issued dire statements about the threat to the transit account. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority says canceling the program "would compromise the longstanding practice of using motor fuel taxes to pay for federal transit projects and programs." Transit author Eric Jaffe says it "would fundamentally reverse 30 years of federal public transit funding, and not in a good way."

Listening to these warnings, you'd think turning over 20 percent of the gas tax has had a positive effect on the citizens' use of public transit. But it has not. Since the transit account was created in 1983, the percentage of Americans traveling on mass transit has dropped slightly or remained flat. 

According to American Public Transportation Association, Americans in 1983 took 8.2 billion transit rides. In 2008, the last year with complete statistics in table 1 here [pdf], we rode the bus, commuter rail, paratransit, heavy rail, light rail, trolley-bus, or "other" 10.5 billion times. The Census Bureau has 1983 U.S. population at 234 million and 2008 U.S. population at 304 million. That comes to 35 rides per American in 1983 and 34.6 rides per American in 2008. 

If the diversion of the gas tax didn't help get more of the population using transit, did it at least prevent people from abandoning public transportation? 

Apparently, it didn't even do that. It's true that transit use endured a long period of decline in the postwar period (going back another 30 years, we find a U.S. population of 189 million taking 8.4 billion transit journeys, or 44.3 per citizen, in 1963—not just a higher number per person but a higher overall number than in 1983.) But in fact the overall-number decline in transit use bottomed out a decade before the transit account was created, in 1972, when 210 million Americans took 6.6 billion transit trips (an anemic 31 trips per person). Transit journeys climbed fairly steadily thereafter, in both total numbers and percentage of population. 

In other words, transit ridership numbers suggest that the transit account actually arrested a trend toward increasing use of transit. To be fair, it is not clear the 1983 change to (and increase in) the gas tax was designed to get more people using mass transit. At the time, today's anti-global warming goal of "getting people out of their cars" had not been fully developed. When he signed the law, President Ronald Reagan did not mention any hope of increasing transit use in the future. Rather, Reagan announced that the move would "ensure for our children a special part of their heritage—a network of highways and mass transit that has enabled our commerce to thrive, our country to grow, and our people to roam freely and easily to every corner of our land." At the time the transit subsidy was viewed, as it probably should have been, as assistance for people who couldn't afford cars. 

Of course the money wasn't spent that way. Smart growth projects around the country, and rail-oriented boondoggles of the sort Lewis brags about, ate up gas tax revenues. They also beggared the form of mass transit—buses—that carry more passengers than any other mode. Bus trips comprised 53 percent of transit use when Reagan signed the transit account. Today they make up only 39 percent. (A clever rail advocate could use APTA's data to argue that we should ignore the flat growth of transit overall and just be thankful for all the light rail that's been built.) 

In the meantime, it's grimly amusing to see the solar panel-dismantling, James Watt-appointing Ronald Reagan being held up as an example of climate-happy progressiveness. "With this extremist, partisan attack by House Republicans, Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave," writes the Natural Resources Defense Council's Deron Lovaas. America 2050's Petra Todorovich gets misty over the Gipper's foresighted decision to afford "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."

Now I don't expect people in 2012 to find the political battles of my childhood any less dull than I found the tales of the red scare and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade told by the leftist fogies of my day. But really, does nobody remember when Ronnie Raygun was the genocidal madman who crippled the EPA and personally hunted spotted owls with a flamethrower? 

Rolling back this small portion of Dutch's legacy wouldn't necessarily solve America's transportation problems. That solution will only come when the entire concept of a "mass transit system" is thrown out in favor of a model based on developing-world transit: unregulated owner-operated minibuses and taxis that drive wherever they want and charge whatever they want. Americans commute in varied and idiosyncratic ways, and this variety should be reflected in our mobility market. That notion is sill too radical for this free land. 

But smart growthers have devastated American cities with their railroad pipe dreams. And they have done it with your gas money. Eliminating the highway trust fund's transit account would at least dry up a revenue stream that for 30 years has done nothing but damage. 

Tim Cavanaugh is managing editor of Reason.com.