A New Political Reality Settling in for National Transportation Financing

» Austerity measures that may be introduced in the House could result in significant cutbacks in support for transit. Meanwhile, the decision by Republican legislators to phase out earmarks may reduce support for a future transportation bill.

Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog Capitol Hill broke the news last Friday that House Republicans are planning to push to “stabilize” the Highway Trust Fund by cutting back expenditures to meet revenues without raising any taxes in the process. The result would be a large decrease in overall federal transportation funding — a potential reduction in spending by $7 to 8 billion a year from around $50 billion today. According to Snyder’s sources, transit financing would be hit especially hard, seeing its annual appropriation cut from $8 billion to $5 billion.

This proposal, though it has yet to be announced publicly (and, indeed, it may not represent the eventual thinking of the House Republican leadership) and though it would likely fail to pass through the Senate, nevertheless adds another layer of difficulty to the already almost impossible process of creating a new national transportation bill.

To make matters even more complicated, Republican members in both houses of Congress followed through last week on their commitment to eliminate their demands for earmarks, a move that will reduce the support of individual members for transportation spending in general. 2011 is likely to shape up as a wild ride in the annals of highway and transit funding.

What was never really in question was the fact that a temporary extension of current federal spending on transportation was coming soon, the fault of a Congress that has for two years been unwilling to step forward in support of improved financing mechanisms for transportation. Departing Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Jim Oberstar (D-MN) recently called for a year-long extension; likely new Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has suggested he would support a six-month lengthening of the current law. No one is clamoring for an immediate shut-down in spending on popular road works. The Highway Trust Fund, filled by fuel taxes, has lacked adequate revenues to pay for all of the highway and transit construction the U.S. has undertaken over the last two years — and even that is just half of what some experts argue is necessary for the adequate maintenance of the nation’s mobility infrastructure.

The Republican proposal as suggested by Streetblog’s Snyder would simply limit spending to what the Highway Trust Fund can raise through the existing federal 18.4¢ gas tax, eliminating the possibility of transferring “general,” income tax-sourced revenues to transportation. But the results of that policy would be devastating; not only has the revenue source not been adjusted to inflation since 1993 — meaning that its value has steadily declined — but people are increasingly driving less and replacing their vehicles with more fuel-efficient cars. The overall effect is a loss in infrastructure-building funding.

Democrats, who despite losing control over the House of Representatives remain in power at the Senate, are unlikely to follow through with these efforts to reduce federal spending on transportation, at least considering their collectively pro-investment stance over the past few years. No one, however, seems to have any courage to propose funding transportation by any manner other than through general fund transfers (such as raising the gas tax), and so if Republicans mount opposition to the idea, the whole program could be put into question.*

GOP members have been arguing for months that a huge percentage of spending at the federal level is waste, an argument that is appealing to a frustrated public experiencing the continued negative effects of a long recession. Thus an attempt to keep transportation spending in check may sound reasonable. As does, apparently, the ban on earmarks, which many Republicans and some Democrats argue are equivalent to political advertisements in which an influential congressperson or senator inserts language in a bill benefiting some minor and unimportant project purely because he or she hopes his or her constituents will notice the work being done for their district.

But earmarks have played an important role in producing bipartisan support for transportation bills in the past. As Robert Puentes recently noted, in the last bill passed in 2005 (SAFETEA-LU), there were 6,373 earmarks distributed pretty evenly across the nation thanks to “contributions” from a number of legislators involved in the bill’s writing. The bill was supported by 412 House members, compared to 8 who voted against it; In the Senate, there were only 4 opponents of the bill (mostly opponents of earmarks), compared to 91 proponents. By giving each member of Congress a local reward for the bill, the program becomes virtually universally supported, no matter the specifics of most of the legislation’s language. It may have been coercion, but it resulted in a funded national transportation system. What would happen now?

One solution, suggested by the generally deluded Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN), is to allow earmarks that are related to transportation, since those are, according to her, not wasteful. This in spite of the fact that much of the issue over earmarks was spurred on by the absurdities of the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere.” And despite the fact that earmarks make up a very small proportion of overall federal spending on transportation, so bringing them back into the equation wouldn’t help matters much.

A long-term solution to these political disagreements is for now not clear. An extension in federal spending for transportation over the next month is likely, but thereafter, all bets are off.

* A spokesman for Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) contacted me after first publishing this article. He made the very good point that the Senator and Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) proposed a plan three weeks ago to increase the gas tax by 25¢ over the next three years, and that the deficit commission appointed by President Obama had itself suggested a 15¢ rise earlier this month. I should note, however, that neither of these proposals have widespread support from the Congress as a whole.

30 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • FG

    It’s my understanding that earmarks are banned in name only rather than in actuality and that the ‘ban’ will be gotten around.

  • Tim Ekren

    I’m still dumbfounded why the Multi year transportation bill was not a key piece of the Stimulus a long time ago. I’m dissappointed in both parties, a missed opportunity by the Democrats to invest in America’s infrastructure in a meaningful way and denial by the Republicans that you actually need to invest in America. China, Brazil and host of others are literally zoomin past us.

    • Kelly

      I have exactly Tim’s question. Its said that they didn’t want to raise the gas tax during a recession. So couldn’t they have passed a bill that would raise it some years out, say 2013? In the meantime, we could just borrow against that future income and invest in transportation. Stimulus and long term fiscal responsibility. Was it really not politically possible for Obama and the Democratic leadership in congress sell this to the American people? They had just won a big election, and we were in the middle of a crisis. If not then, when?

      • Nathanael

        “Conventional Wisdom”, a.k.a. “Beltway Bubble” thinking, has led a lot of otherwise sensible people in Congress and the Administration to decide that they “can’t” do whatever they ought to be doing.

  • Ocean Railroader

    Our county is now past it’s prime and now it is on the road to decay. This will help move it a long.

  • Federico

    Most every thinking American knew that at some point our country’s days as the most powerful, influential, prosperous nation in the world would come to an end. But did anyone think that it would happen like this, in such a stunning burst of self-destruction? China must be standing in amazement, jaw agape, although they are clearly not passing up an ounce of opportunity to leap forward. Well, let it be another lesson for the history books: accumulation of wealth breeds decadence, but a two-party system is likely not capable of finding workable solutions to move on.

    • Chris L

      The truth hurts.

    • Wad

      Federico wrote:
      … but a two-party system is likely not capable of finding workable solutions to move on.

      Nor would three or more parties. Minor parties are subject to the same vices and chicanery just to take care of business. Democracy is captured by the donor classes.

      • Nathanael

        Regarding the “two-party system”, see Duverger’s Law.

        A system where it is more possible for new parties to arise and muscle out old parties is capable of much faster shifts in control to adjust to changed circumstances. Witness the election of the Labour Party and Clement Atlee in the UK after WWII.

        A robust system of proportional representation is more capable of such shifts (though a system with *very* small districts works nearly as well). The US system is peculiarly incapable of such shifts, due not just to Duverger’s Law, large districts, and gerrymandering, but also to such obsolete artifacts as the US Senate (it’s completely unrepresentative, folks!) and the Electoral College.

    • Nathanael

      “But did anyone think that it would happen like this, in such a stunning burst of self-destruction?”

      Yes.

      • Ocean Railroader

        It was say 30 years in the making when the last generations of the Road builders stopped building the great systems of roads and railroads in the last great age of the road builders in the 1970’s Then as they say we became a managment soicity and not a builder socity. The day we became a management socity then we could now enter the age of the decay which will be followed by the age of claspes.

        • Nathanael

          It’s worse than that. Well, maybe not. It depends what you mean by a “management society”.

          If we were a “management society” in the sense of maintaining and “managing” what we have, that would be excellent. But we’re not, as is clear from all the deferred maintenance everywhere.

          Instead we’re a “financialized society”, where certain people strive to loot companies and loot the government and collect all their money from interest and rents, and make it a point of pride not to do anything productive whatsoever. And then claim that they’re doing “God’s work”, as the man from Goldman Sachs did.

          There are some actual studies showing that “financialization” of a society leads to inevtiable economic collapse, if it isn’t reversed.

  • Kelly

    If they do “stabilize” transportation spending, can congress take back the recent TIGER 2 grants, or the loan Los Angeles was promised for our Crenshaw LRT? I hear that some in congress want what’s left of California’s HSR money.

    Also, if there were no New Starts money for Los Angeles (to supplement its measure R tax money) what happens to its west side subway extension and the “Regional Connector”? Measure R, I think, requires that money be spent on all the various corridors and projects. So, I’m guessing that we would have to spend less on all projects..? If so, does the Regional Connector become partially at-grade? As it is, they don’t have enough money to build one station that was studied, so I take it there is no money to spare, even with the anticipated New Starts money.

  • Allen

    “The Republican proposal as suggested by Streetblog’s Snyder would simply limit spending to what the Highway Trust Fund can raise through the existing federal 18.4¢ gas tax, eliminating the possibility of transferring “general,” income tax-sourced revenues to transportation. But the results of that policy would be devastating; not only has the revenue source not been adjusted to inflation since 1993 — meaning that its value has steadily declined — but people are increasingly driving less and replacing their vehicles with more fuel-efficient cars. The overall effect is a loss in infrastructure-building funding.”

    This is not true. This does nothing to prevent states, counties and cities from raising money for projects they want to build. That’s not devasting. It simply means the Federal government wouldn’t be bankrolling local projects.

    • Ocean Railroader

      What Vrginia is doing to make up for this loss in money is they are building public privet highway projects such as they are widening the Washingtion DC Beltway Interstate 495 to 12 lanes from eight but the catch is that the four new lanes are going to be tolled hot lanes with a vatrable rate toll that will go anywhere from $4 dollars to drive 14 miles to as much as $18 dollars for 14 miles.

      The Hampton Roads Bridge tunnel is going to need five billion dollars to widen it from four to eight lanes so they are going to do a public privet construction project that will place a $4 to $7 dollar toll.

      There is also a thrid project in Vrginia in the Hampton Roads area that will cost $2 and it has them building another set of tunnels under the bay in Norfolk and it will have a $2 to $5 dollar toll on it to pay for it’s two billion dollar cost.

      I really feel that we should take money from the general fund and put it into the transportatoin fund China seems to be doing a very good job of this.

      • Nathanael

        When the toll lanes on the Beltway sit empty and fail to pay for themselves, perhaps this sort of thing will be reconsidered.

        The toll *tunnels* in Norfolk will probably attract people, though, as that’s more of a bottleneck.

  • Glen

    If they are going to do this then just turn over the 18cent to each state to use as they wish..We blue donor states will put the money to work for useful transit instead of just pavemnet and all the red states we help will need to cough up there own money for roads since this is the mindset they voted in.

  • Matt

    Of course the repub. proposal a much higher hit to transit than to roads. What about energy independence – are we just going to forget about that?

    There needs to be a permanent indexing to the gas tax at a minimum. 18 cents a gallon just isn’t going to cut it. In dealing with the Repubs. the only chance of compromise might be to ensure close to 100% return for certain states. However, once they realize that this return equity means more money going to states like CA and NY instead of rural ones, I doubt they would support it even with the states rights argument and tax equity. They should be called out on it though.

    • Nathanael

      The Rethugs in the US Congress, obviously, oppose energy independence. Hey, their Saudi buddies (like ‘Bandar Bush’) would be in big trouble if the US achieved it.

  • “Virginia widening the Washingtion DC Beltway Interstate 495 to 12 lanes from 8 but the catch is that the 4 new lanes are going to be tolled hot lanes with a vatrable rate toll that will go anywhere from $4 dollars to drive 14 miles to as much as $18 dollars for 14 miles.”

    Another brazenly stupid idea by Virginia DOT Highway hacks. Virginian commuters will think they are getting 50% more highway capacity. Instead they’ll be getting under 25% more capacity to start, more accidents from autos crossing more lanes and pressure the Maryland side of I-495 to follow the same brain-dead expansion. All Virginia DOT has to do is look at the 12-lane freeways of Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and LA to know that induced auto traffic gobbles up the extra in 2 years, then autos crawl again. In the case of the LA’s I-405 Freeway, it happened only 1 year after expansion to 12 lanes — even on weekends.

    Why doesn’t Virginia DOT spend that public money extending the planned Purple Line LRT more quickly into Virginia to form a transit beltway? Oh no … that would actually prevent I-495 traffic from getting worse.

    • I don’t understand – why is this a 25% increase and not a 50% increase?

      • Using I-495 Northern Virginia/DC as the example, assume that 4 lanes/side represents 100% baseline capacity for an interstate freeway having equal width lanes. To the average driver, adding 2 lanes/side would push that capacity to 150%. But that is not the real world.

        First, added lanes are often not of equal width. Second, more people driving at different speeds, different car length spacing, different reaction times crossing over more lanes disrupts traffic flow more frequently. During commute hours, the result is percentage of average traffic lane efficiency drops for each lane added.

        Since a practical minimum of 2 lanes/side are needed on each super-highway, that configuration has the lowest variability factors impacting lane efficiency, it is the true baseline for freeway lane efficiency. Lane efficiency evidences a mild (hard to notice) logarithmic percentage drop at 3 lanes/side. But comparing 4 lanes/side to 2 lanes/side, you can notice the lane efficiency drop per hour. It would be interesting to see this phenomenon on time-lapse photography.

        Given 4 lanes/side is the baseline for I-495 Freeway, adding the 5th lane/side would only increase total freeway capacity by about 15-16% (ballpark estimate), not 25% as your visual system suggests. Therefore, adding the 6th lane/side increases total freeway capacity by about 11-12%. Hence, adding lanes beyond 4 is a Fools Gold use of funds compared to building LRT or HRT in the same space.

        Excluding the I-105 Freeway with Green Line LRT, Los Angeles and Orange county freeways are great examples. Drivers fell for Fools Gold added capacity because new lanes opening make their panoramic pyscho-visual system scream “More space for me.” Word gets around, inducing more people with a wider variety of driving styles and car conditions to take the freeway than otherwise would. With even more driver/auto variability crossing more lanes, 12-18 months later freeways lanes crunch again.

        Without a central traffic control system limiting everybody to precisely 60 mph, similar to the futuristic Minority Report movie scene, this traffic phenomenon will always occur. For the scientific explanation, see
        http://paleale.eecs.berkeley.edu/~varaiya/papers_ps.dir/California'sPerformanceMeasurementSystem.pdf

        • Nathanael

          Thanks for your analysis there. I always knew that extra lanes dropped off in value very quickly after the first 2-each-way, and it’s nice to see some reference to hard evidence.

    • jim

      Thomas,

      I don’t know how much additional lane-crossing will actually occur. There will be direct ramps from the HOV lanes on 95 and 395 into the HOT lanes on 495. The HOV ramps from EB 66 will feed directly into them, too. It may well be that it will be mainly through traffic which uses the HOT lanes. For trips covering two to four interchanges it won’t be worth it to work over to the HOT lanes and back.

      I don’t think Maryland needs much pressuring. It was they insisted on 12 lanes for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

      My big concern is what will happen off-peak. Already the stretch between the bridge construction and the HOT lane construction sees traffic speeds of 75-80 mph routinely. God knows what people will do once the construction is done with.

      • My apologies to Virginia DOT if Maryland DOT started this 12 lane stupidity.

        When the decision was made, it was already clear that Metro DC had a strong transit culture desirous of transit expansion. Both states should have got together to run LRT in two lanes of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

        • jim

          Two of the lanes were, in the initial planning, referred to as transit lanes. At this point, with the bridge not even finished, they’re being referred to as HOV/Transit lanes. Since no jurisdiction is showing any interest in actually running transit over the bridge (Alexandria’s transitways end a good way from the bridge; the DC Anacostia streetcar now ends further from the bridge than the original plans; WMATA has never run even a bus between PG and Virginia), they’ll soon just be HOV lanes.

  • Dexter

    In response to FG’s comment, Senator Kyl of AZ has already authored a bill to help AZ native Americans, although he says it’s not an earmark, but the old saying “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it’s a duck.”

  • EngineerScotty

    Since earmarks are being discussed–has anyone ever attempted to study whether or not transportation earmarks (of any sort), as a whole, are less “worthy” projects than transportation projects funded through normal appropriation programs, in which DOT staff evaluate and prioritize programs for fundings, ideally based on technical merit?

    The common belief is that powerful congresspeople inserting “bridges to nowhere” and other obvious boondoggles into appropriations bills, is a Big Problem. Is this at all the reality of the situation?

  • Adirondacker12800

    Earmarks in general, taken as a whole, are a tiny part of the Federal budget, so probably not much of a problem. Even the Bridge to Nowhere was “only” budgeted for 398 million.

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