Transportation Policy

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: 

Detroit people mover. Just add people.

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. 

The Expo Line, taking up space even before it's built.

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. 

String theorists hold that in an alternate universe Ronald Reagan got the lead in Double Indemnity and Fred MacMurray became President.

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


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  1. Morning Links later, maybe.

    Good morning Reason!

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  2. Using gas taxes to fund public transportation is like drawing blood from a sick patient and using it with a feather quill to fill out their charts.

  3. How about a crazy idea that people should pay for their own transportation whether personnel or freight. Road users pay for roads, airplane users pay for air traffic, rail users pay for rail and water users pay for shipping.

    1. Public transportation is needed so that street musicians can have a venue. Added bonus: loud men who say “yo” can have someplace to yell and be heard.

      1. In other words, only Blah people ride public transportation.

    2. Road users would have to start paying for roads then. Highways are paid for by transit taxes, but most roads are paid for out of general taxes.

      A fair system would be like Sweden where 80% of roads are paid for privately.

      Here, non road users subsidize the car drivers.

      So by all means, let’s go to a system where you pay for what you use. Most auto drivers would balk when they see how very little they pay now and how much everyone else pays for them.

      1. “Most auto drivers would balk when they see how very little they pay now and how much everyone else pays for them.”
        Interesting claim; got any evidence?

      2. Roadways *are* paid for by roadway users. It’s just not all by the gas tax. So if you transferred all roadway maintenance and new construction costs to the gas tax, yeah, it would go up, but you’d also then have an obligation to lower the other taxes that go to pay for roadway improvements. You can’t just say “Yeah, roadway users should pay all the costs out of the gas tax, so let’s just raise the gas tax and *keep all the other taxes that go to pay for roadways now*.”

        On top of this, it’s far more justifiable to charge non-drivers for roadway construction and maintenance, if we posit that all the costs of roadways aren’t built into internal costs, such as the gas tax. Does that guy who doesn’t own a car never go anywhere? Does he get deliveries from Does he go buy groceries transported from all over the globe to his local store? Of course. Why should he not shoulder some of the burden for the roadway network? If all the costs for the roadway were built into the gas tax, then fine, he’s paying for it by paying for his deliveries. But since your position is that that stuff is *not* all inclusive, then the guy who isn’t a car owner needs to pay some, too.

        1. Wouldn’t those costs get passed on to the guy that doesn’t own a car, in the form of higher prices at the grocer and higher shipping charges?

          1. Of course. What’s your point? Isn’t that guy using the roads, indirectly? I thought people were wanting ‘road users’ to bear the costs of having roads. Why should a transport company *not* put their direct costs into the rates they charge for shipments?

            This is exactly the point I was making above. *Everyone* benefits from the roadway network. This is in direct contrast to commuter and transit projects and operations. At *best* you could argue that remaining road users enjoy a very slight benefit in that there might be fewer drivers, although this is tenuous at best, and that capacity is quickly refilled by trips of lower marginal utility. And what does the guy who never goes anywhere benefit from a rail project? Light rail doesn’t deliver groceries to the local store. UPS isn’t making deliveries on commuter buses.

            Don’t get me wrong: I’m *100%* in favor of the sole source of roadway funding being directly in fees for direct users. Because everyone will eventually end up paying for what they use – both the driver that’s on the road via direct costs and the guy who’s having other people do his driving for him via passed on costs. But if it’s not combined with a give back in the rest of the taxes people pay, where that other 8-10 Billion dollars referenced in the OP are coming from, then it’s just a tax increase on drivers.

            1. But just as non-road users benefit from roads, don’t non-transit users benefit from transit? For example, if someone commutes to their office in a city and creates some product which you use? Granted, most people who ride transit are parasites that are just riding around looking for crimes to commit, but still there’s probably one or two who has a job.

              1. The bigger benefit is less traffic. If the commuter starts taking mass transit, then all the other commuters benefit from a faster commute.

                1. Kronebourg, as Highway explained above, traffic reduction is tenuous, which means that we just need toll roads to get rid of the poor people that would otherwise clog up the roads after we gut public transit.

        2. So if you transferred all roadway maintenance and new construction costs to the gas tax, yeah, it would go up, but you’d also then have an obligation to lower the other taxes that go to pay for roadway improvements

          I’d vote for that. Politicians can’t be trusted to not abuse fungability though. So you have to have air-tight firewalls around that money, so that if it gets to the point where more tax is being collected than needed, they only have two choices: (1) let a surplus build up that still can’t be used for ANYTHING AT ALL except for future road usage, or (2) lower the gas tax.

      3. I dare you to claim that you know even a single person who doesn’t use the roads in any way on a daily basis. Using roads includes using any product that relies on roads for distribution.

        1. I dare you to claim that you know even a single person who doesn’t use the roads in any way on a daily basis. Using roads includes using any product that relies on roads for distribution.

          Exactly this.

          Every person who does live in a cabin in Montana and is 100% self-sufficient gets benefits from the roads. Everything you’ve ever bought in the US reached the place you bought it on the trailer of a truck that drove on a road. Everything.

  4. I like trains. Cars are evil, and should be outlawed.

  5. fifth part of your federal gasoline tax goes to fund public transportation UNIONS.

  6. This also funds bike paths and such, no?

    1. “This also funds bike paths and such, no?”
      A couple of years back when the local paper was filled with stories about pork like the ‘bridge to nowhere’, there was a big, front page article on how that hag Pelosi grabbed several million for a bike path on the SF bay shoreline. Yep, ‘transportation funds’.
      Shucks, probably used by dozens per week!

  7. There is no trust fund so sacred that a politician won’t steal from it.

    1. While I’m not a great fan of politicians, I suspect that it is actually illegal for the federal government to sequester money. I seem to recall that there has been a Supreme Court decision on this, related to Social Security. The ruling, if I recall correctly, held that as the Constitution was written, all monies HAD to be placed into the general fund.

      If this recollection is correct, then it would take a Constitutional amendment to change this.

  8. That makes a lot of sene dude.

  9. And Salon seems to think that wanting to cut the mass transit fund budget from the transportation budget is part of a KULTUR WAR ON TEH CITEEZ!!!!11!!!!!one!!!eleventy!!

    In the week since House Republicans introduced their proposed transportation bill, one thing has become clear: It has virtually nothing to do with fiscal responsibility.

    The Tea Party soared to power on the notion that it was the antidote to wasteful government spending. It’s now clear that reigniting the culture wars was a top priority, too. From guns to abortion, the extremist wing of the Republican Party has fought to turn back the clock on many socially progressive ideals.

    Mass transit is its newest target.

    “Federal transportation and infrastructure policy has traditionally been an area of strong bipartisan agreement,” says Aaron Naparstek, a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and founder of “Now, it seems, Republicans want to turn cities into a part of the culture wars. Now it’s abortion, gay marriage and subways.”

    House Republicans seek to eliminate the Mass Transit Account from the federal Highway Trust Fund. The Mass Transit Account is where public transportation programs get their steady source of funding. Without it, transit would be devastated, and urban life as we know it could become untenable.

    [. . .]

    Defunding transit is how you smack down urbanites, environmentalists, and people of color, all in one fell swoop. It’s how you telegraph a disdain for all things European. It’s how you show solidarity with swing-state suburbanites who don’t understand why their taxes are going toward subways they don’t even use. And it’s how you subtly reassure your base that you’re not concerned about the very poor.

    Republicans haven’t pretended to care about cities for decades. In January, none of the candidates showed up to the annual Conference of Mayors. (Two of them didn’t even RSVP.) And even just a month ago, you could argue, as this website did, that “today cities are more ignored than attacked” by Republicans. But the calculus just changed. The transportation bill sends an aggressive message: “Tea Party to Cities: Drop Dead.”

    They argue that more money in absolute dollars goes to funding roads they supposed don’t use or gain benefit from and therefore they are subsidizing our filthy suburban/exurban/rural lifestyles more than we subsidize theirs. Except that if you look at the numbers it shows that nearly 80% of the cost of mass transit is subsidized versus less than 25% of road drivers (which ignores the fact even those who have never driven on a road benefit from roads in that everything they have ever bought reached the store shelf (or equivalent) via the use of a road).

    They are fucking stupid.

    1. a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and founder of “Now, it seems, Republicans want to turn cities into a part of the culture wars. Now it’s abortion, gay marriage and subways.”

      Jesus Christ this is weapons grade demagoguery…

      So anything that goes after so-called progressive era ideas (shared labor through mutual aid!) can be lumped in with the culture war?

      That’s a fascinating strategy. “Oh, right, first it was abortion, then it was gays, now you want to stop forced property transfers from lower-income people to wealthy realestate tycoons? Culture warz!11!”

  10. Getting rid of the masss transit of drivers gas tax money is a good start.

    It should be followed up by getting rid of the Davis-Bacon Act which is a theft of drivers gas tax money by labor unions.

  11. mass transit theft of drivers gas tax money, I meant to say.

    1. Whew! I was worried that there were massive herds of gas cans roaming the country side.

  12. 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

    How does a trust fund run a deficit?

    1. Semantically, it’s because the ‘Highway Trust Fund’ is paying out that 10 billion dollars more than it takes in from the gas tax. It’s just accounting for the fact that it’s no more a ‘trust fund’ than Social Security is. It’s the Feds: all the money goes in to one big pot, all the money comes out of one big pot.

      1. That’s what I was wondering… was it a trust fund the way SS is a “trust fund” or was it really a trust fund. Because if it’s a trust fund in the real sense, when the money runs out, Johnny gotta go get a job ‘n shit.

        1. Paul, as I not below, the Highway “trust fund” – yes it’s an accounting device – is not intended to be “saved up” over an extende period of time.

          The intention is that something close to the amount of the gas tax collected each year will be spent in that year. The “trust fund” ensures that money collected for a specific purpose is spent on that purpose.

          It’s more justifiable in that there is no pretense that they are “saving up” money for some time in the distant future.

          The intent is to try to even up spending from one year to the next.

          1. “The intention is that something close to the amount of the gas tax collected each year will be spent in that year [on highway construction or maintenance].”

      2. “Trust fund” is a useful accounting device for something like the gas tax though.

        The idea is that if it runs a surplus one year the gas tax can either be reduced or the next years Highway Bill can be a little bigger by taking some from the general fund the next year.

        In the case of the Highway Trust fund there is no pretense of “saving up” for some big outlay in the distant future the way the Social Security does.

        1. It used to be fairly common in some states and provinces for the gas tax to only be used for bridges, paving and drainage; ie, the parts of the road that cars actually used.

          And, of course major bridge projects were paid for with bond issues that were then paid off with tolls.

          1. Add a second para to the above.

            “Sidewalks and other appurtances not necessary for auto use were paid for by the local government with local tax money. You can still see this done in the unit price breakdowns on some road contracts.”

  13. Since White Injun got himself banned yesterday the threads are a bit more readable. One dealing with transit surely would have gotten lots of posts to wade past dealing with the right to gambol (on the taxpayer dime) all over this great land?

    Not that I’m nostalgic for WI.

    1. He got banned? I thought I saw some D?j? vu in the Matrix yesterday. That must have been it.

    2. hasn’t he already got banned like 4 times?

      1. Well, somebody kicked him out and wiped his comments from a thread. What finally pushed it over the edge was him pasting dozens of Google translate versions of the article into the comments to try to drown everything else out.

        To see the results, go to this thread from yesterday. In the comments you’ll see “rather not” with 35 “shut up you tainted whore” comments. Each of those was a response to WI posting a full copy of the article in another language. As you can imagine, those huge blocks of text made it almost impossible to follow the comments.

        So yeah, it seems like WI finally crossed a line and his psychopathic tendencies solicited a response from the Reason webmaster.

        1. hooray for private property getting policed by the owners of that property.

  14. Our hot headed mayor is named ROB Ford not Bob. Seriously it’s in the first line of the linked article.

    Glad to see at least a smidgen of Canadian content on reason though.

    1. If my mayor murdered Jesse James I wouldn’t be bragging about it, hombre. Always happy to bring the Canuck though.

  15. People use less mass transit than expected because gas taxes are too low of course. Jack them up to European prices and then all types of people would start using transit.

    Of course you also need dense populations for mass transit to work. But 50 years of low fuel taxes combined with decentralized zoning have worked against that.

    1. Why should gas taxes be any higher than what is needed to build roads?

      Note, 20% of the gas tax is siphoned off to pay for trainz and a bunch more is used for sidewalks and bike trails.

  16. Europe has tried throwing money at train systems – the result has been systematic failure. Look at the dismal results of Big Government boondoggles. Can you imagine having to commute via these hellholes every day? (twice a day!)


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