State Decision Making in the Context of Federal Transportation Funding

» An examination of STIP plans shows wide variation in planned use of federal transportation dollars across states, with limited ability to maneuver independently.

Because of the sheer number of states in the U.S., it is often simpler to discuss federal transportation investment policies or state investments in the aggregate than make comparisons between states. Overall, for example, transit accounts for about a quarter of national spending on ground transportation — a bit more than the 20% of funds appropriated directly to public transportation by Congress, showing that many states are moving a small amount of their highway funds into transit programs. Looking at the national level, however, fails to provide an accurate evaluation of what is occurring on the ground in different parts of the country. States, after all, are often wildly different in political ideologies and historical mobility patterns.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), a New York-based advocacy group, recently conducted a major study that examined Statewide Transportation Improvement Programs (STIP) to determine how states are planning to use the transportation dollars that they are allocated by the federal government. The STIP reports are required by Washington to demonstrate which projects at both the state and metropolitan area levels will be prioritized with the funds that are expected under the transportation authorization over the next four years or so (state plans differed in terms of the specific years covered). TSTC helpfully categorized all projects being planned by states into nine categories of transportation investment, from transit to new road capacity to bridge maintenance.

The TSTC report, written by Renata Silberblatt, emphasizes the need for states to improve the accessibility of their STIP documents, provide uniform categorization of projects, and develop performance metrics. Currently the federal government’s guidelines on how this information is distributed are not strong enough, she argues.

The value of TSTC’s research is broader than this, however: By examining how individual states are planning to spend their federal dollars, we can extrapolate differences and similarities between states and evaluate whether existing programs are working to encourage the right sorts of mobility investments.*

According to TSTC’s research, on average, states spent 20% of federal funding on transit, 39% on road and bridge maintenance, 23% on highway or bridge capacity expansion projects, and 2% on bike and pedestrian programs. But states diverge dramatically on these counts, as might be expected. The following charts, in which I have compiled TSTC’s nine transportation funding categories into five, show how states are planning to spend their transportation funding.

As the following chart shows, seven states are planning to spend more than 40% of their federal ground transportation funding on transit — Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, Colorado, Illinois, and Utah. These are all states with large urban populations, though the inclusion of Virginia, Colorado, and Utah is likely a result of those states’ large planned transit capacity projects over the next few years — the Dulles Silver Line Metro expansion, Denver’s Fastracks, and Salt Lake City’s TRAX programs.

Unsurprisingly, other states were more likely to spend a large percentage of their funding on road or bridge capacity expansion, as shown in the chart below. Six states — North Carolina, Indiana, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi — are planning to spend more than 40% of their federal funding on such new capacity programs. In general, these states are clearly prioritizing their roads systems over new transit. States that are spending a very large percentage of their transportation funding on roads are likely to be those where there is little opportunity to expand transit ridership.

Interestingly, Utah and Texas are two states that stand out as spending very large amount of federal funding on both transit programs and new highway capacity (to a lesser extent, Maryland, California, and Illinois show similar characteristics). It is worth questioning whether new transit programs in those places will be well used when so much money is being spent on roads at the same time.

Most states fall somewhere in between these extremes, planning to spend the largest amount of their funding on highway and bridge maintenance. These states’ populations are likely to use similar modes of transportation as they do today into the future. The states that emphasize new road construction over maintenance are likely to experience a decline in the quality of their existing roads and encourage increasing suburban sprawl. Choosing to invest more in new and bigger highways (rather than maintained existing ones) is a political choice that says a lot about a state’s growth priorities.

Most highway funding can be redirected to transit funding if states so choose. Does this examination of the STIP plans demonstrate that states are making independent decisions about their use of federal funding?

The Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration have analysed how they expect to distribute funding to states and metropolitan areas in fiscal year 2013 based on formula programs (this figure does not include New Start funding for new transit capital projects). These formulas are defined by such variables as population, highway miles, and transit use, among others. Looking at New York State’s appropriations show that it is to be provided about $1.7 billion in transit funding and $1.6 billion in highway funding, roughly equivalent to how the state’s STIP is allocated. Similarly, North Carolina will receive about $1 billion in highway funding and $100 million in transit funding, also similar to the distribution indicated by TSTC’s analysis, where about 10% of federal dollars are to be spent on public transportation. New York gets so much more transit funding than North Carolina because of the far higher ridership of the former state’s rail and bus systems.

On the other hand, Utah is only expected to receive about $62 million in transit in FY 2013, compared to $312 million in highway funding. But its large transit capital program, involving the construction of new light rail and commuter rail lines in and around Salt Lake City, means that it will actually distribute a far larger share of its received federal funds on public transportation. And Hawaii will spend such a large percentage of its funds on transit because of the state’s decision to invest in the Honolulu rail project. So some states do seem to be emphasizing public transportation investments more than their standard Congressionally defined shares might indicate.

Even so, most states appear to be planning to spend about as much on transit as Congress appropriates to them under the formula programs. As a result, the federal transportation program appears to be reinforcing existing patterns: States with lots of highways and drivers get more funding for those roads and car owners. States with a lot of transit users get a large amount of money for public transportation. States do not appear to be systematically shifting roads funds towards transit. The result is that it is difficult to envision significant mode shifts towards public transportation as a result of federal investment — particularly because there is no significant federal funding available to cover operating costs.

The one exception is in the New Starts program, where states that want to significantly expand their transit infrastructure can do so. Is that an adequate range of intervention for the federal government? Is that enough to promote mode shifts towards transit?

* It should be noted that TSTC’s report included projects that were partially funded with local or state funding if federal funding was also involved and if they were included in the STIP plans (not required if there was no federal funding). This means that projects entirely funded by state and local governments are not included. Moreover, projects funded by the GARVEE and ARRA programs are not included. Finally, because of a lack of adequate information, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. are not included in the above charts. Washington State’s data is a bit deceiving because of TSTC’s decision to classify Seattle’s massive Alaskan Way Viaduct project in its own category.

19 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Ben Ross

    This is a very useful study, but users should be careful because the complexity of transportation funding makes it very hard to put different budgets on a consistent basis. Some of the limitations are noted at the end of the report, and there are others. For example, in Maryland highway maintenance and “minor” capacity additions — some of which are not so minor — are put into a single category.

  • Tim McKuin

    Here in Arkansas the chairperson of our state Highway Commission is leading the charge to pass a 1/2c statewide sales tax in November to pay for nearly $2 billion worth of four-lane highways crisscrossing the state over the next 10 years. That’s $2 billion in a state with fewer than 3 million people in it. So not only do we misappropriate federal dollars on a regular basis by emphasizing new highways instead of a balanced transportation system that promotes choice, but we’re also going to double down with our own limited funds by building even more roads.

  • Ocean Railroader

    Northern Vriginia’s muti billion dollar Dulls Airport Heavy Rail extension is the Rhino that most likely is why Vriginia is so high towards the transit it end right now along with the Tide Light Light Rail system. Once they start building the new Interstate 95 hotlanes and the Coalfeilds Expressway along with the new US Route 460 bypass Vriginia will start sliding back down to the center or towards the car side in that I really don’t see a lot of transit in the state.

  • Dws

    Another interesting finding was the amount spent on bike/ped…three states (WA, DE and VT) appear to be spending a large portion of there budget on this category. I’d be curious to know what they are planning to spend such a large amount of money on…

  • Matt

    Texas’ small amount to road maintenance is stunning. According to this they spend almost nothing on maintenance. That isn’t sustainable.

    • Ocean Railroader

      They might have the road maintenance blended into the highway expansion projects in that is common in Virginia where they will rebuild or replace a old worn out bridge but they will build the rebuilt street or bridge wider or heaver than before to where it looks like they expanded the highway.

      A example of this is these list of projects in Northern VA in that you do have a lot of cases where they replace say a worn out one lane wooden bridge and they put in a two lane bridge that’s over 20 feet wider than the original one. Or they up date a old interchange to more modern standards.

      http://www.virginiadot.org/projects/northern%20virginia/default.asp

  • Patrick

    The article says: ” Six states — North Carolina, Indiana, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi — are planning to spend more than 40% of their federal funding on such new capacity programs. In general, these states are clearly prioritizing their roads systems over new transit. States that are spending a very large percentage of their transportation funding on roads are likely to be those where there is little opportunity to expand transit ridership.”

    I’m not surprised that here in AZ we will be spending approx. 55% of our funds on new roads. First off, the people that run this state are incredibly conservative. More to the point though, is the fact that this state is growing (even after the housing crash), fast. The new Highway Funding Bill just passed by congress contained a designation of the I-11 corridor (between the Phoenix & Las Vegas, NV metro areas – possibly expanded to Reno, NV in the future as part of the Can-Mex Corridor). Having just driven this route about a month ago, this is a project sorely needed. The existing road is two lanes in places, and often alternates between 2 & 3 lanes (yes, 3 lanes – the road will be 2 lanes one way (say towards Vegas), 1 the other way (towards Phoenix), then switch to the opposite setup – and they are doing construction in many parts to make it 4 lanes. I’d love to see HSR built in this corridor too, but that is a long way off, and until then we need an interstate. All of the road between Kingman, AZ and the new Hoover Dam bypass is interstate-grade 4 highway (though there are intersections, turn-offs, and places the road passes through a few small towns). The route also goes through Kingman and will have to be rerouted around the town. Nevada is also looking at building a Boulder City bypass (as the current route goes right through town) and the city is on-board as it will get semis off their narrow and clogged streets. The route is supposed to be matched with the Hassayampa Freeway which will cut around the far western portions of the Phoenix metro area and will eventually end in the town of Casa Grande in Pinal County, a town on I-10 and the eastern terminus of I-8, about halfway between Phoenix (Maricopa County) and Tucson (Pima County). Pinal county is part of the Phoenix MSA, and is envisioned as a kind-of future Inland Empire, a vast area of urban sprawl between the two main existing AZ metro areas. The Phoenix metro area is also currently building the 303 loop in the west/north-west portions of the Phoenix metro area (but not as far west as the Hassayampa Frwy.), and looking into the I-10 reliever from the west into downtown in Phoenix. The state is also in the middle of expanding I-10 from 2 lanes to 3 lanes in many parts of the portion from Tucson to Phoenix. This road is constantly at medium to full capacity and is sorely in need of expanding to a full 3 lanes.

    Here in Tucson the state recently widened I-10 from 3 to 4 lanes through downtown, then added another mile or so to 4 lanes north from this existing widened portion (and is now widening the next mile or so north to 4 lanes, and already is looking at widening the next mile portion to 4 lanes). Meanwhile, the Tucson MSA/Pima County is in the 6th year of a 20 year Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) plan funded by a 1/2 cent sales tax hike, which includes widening many roads throughout the area (some in the heart of the city of Tucson, some in built-up suburbs, some on the outskirts of the urbanized area that are anticipated to see large, future growth).

    The RTA, though, is also building the Tucson Modern Streetcar – currently under construction – projected to open by the end of 2013, building bus pull-outs all over the city, built park-and-rides for the bus system in areas year the edge of the city, and has already added bus routes and extended hours of operation for the bus system (along with building bike-lanes, multi-use paths, and sidewalks). Tucson is already looking at future new routes for their streetcar system (the route under construction now will link the University Medical Center – just north of the University of Arizona, the U of A, the 4th Ave. retail district, downtown, and the near west-end – just west of downtown, past I-10). In just the past year the downtown (considered dead just a couple years ago) has seen some signs of life thanks to the streetcar project. The U of A has expanded into downtown with some classes and offices and there are currently 2 student housing projects in the works (1 just broke ground, the other getting ready to start construction), along with another new student housing just north of downtown (between downtown and the university, just a block or 2 from the streetcar line), along with a new 14 story student housing project adjacent to the university (with plans for a 13 story building next door). In Phoenix they’ve just opened their light-rail in the last 5 years and have been busy building a link to Sky Harbor Airport. There are plans to expand it into downtown Mesa (east of Phoenix) and into Peoria and Glendale (west of Phoenix – Glendale is home to the NHL’s Coyotes and the NFL’s Cardinals).

    The state is growing fast, led by Phoenix (and Tucson, to a lesser extent), and is in need of increased capacity on many road projects, but lets not let the state of the hook too easy by saying that “there is little opportunity to expand transit ridership” (as the article says), because there certainly is the opportunity (and the vision) to expand the existing Phoenix light-rail and the under-construction Tucson Modern Streetcar.

    • Ocean Railroader

      What worries me about some of these western states is they are running out of water so they should really should start considering not to want to have more people move in or start spending some of highway dollars towards a massive water moving system to prevent them from drying out or they will have ten lane highways that go though bone dry empty cities if they don’t pay attention to the water needs.

      • Andre L.

        The dry Western states have a relatively safe reserve: curtailing agricultural use (which still uses much more water than urban areas, despite losing importance in state economy) of water and diverting it to human direct consumption. And we even’t started with water re-use (grey water) and other measures.

        Israel manages to get by reasonably well even with very hostile neighbors and water availability per capita that is 1/5 of that of Arizona…

        • Nathanael

          Arizona sure doesn’t have that option. There was never much agriculture in Arizona and there still isn’t. It’s a DESERT.

          Though they do have the option of banning lawns and golf courses, which occupy an absurd amount of Phoenix’s water supply. That would give them enough water for quite a few more years.

          But Arizona is getting hotter thanks to global warming; it’s not even clear that the state will be cool enough for humans to live in 50 years.

          Arizona is going to end up with gigantic ghost towns.

      • Patrick

        Some of the projects include water harvesting measures. One particular project that has just broken ground is the Grant Rd. widening (east-west road in north-central Tucson), which will widen a multi-mile (6, I believe) stretch of Grant Rd. from 4 to 6 lanes. The project will also have Michigan Left Turns (indirect left turns) at the major intersections. The first part just broke ground in the last couple weeks (the official ceremony was today actually) and will be broken down into 6 parts, spread out over the next 10 plus years. This is funded by the RTA. The project will include rainwater harvesting capabilities in some of the medians of the project. These will be what can best be described as inverted umbrellas that will funnel rainwater into poles and underground to tanks that will store the water. Much of the construction of student and multi-housing apartment buildings and larger commercial buildings happening both downtown and around the city are striving to be, and are being built, to LEED silver standards. Also, with approx. 350 sunny days a year the area is being utilized with solar farms (albeit, small ones) and many houses (including those in Davis-Montham Air Force Base in the city’s southeast part) have solar panels. The city of Tucson is also offering citizens rebates for certified rainwater harvesting at homes.

  • John Hodges-Copple

    thanks for the excellent summary. my reading of the report (page 11) is that GARVEE-funded (actually “financed” since GARVEE doesn’t seem to increase the pot of $ avaialable, just fast-forward the dollars that would be in the pot anyway) and ARRA funded projects ARE included.

    • Thanks for that point. I have corrected the post.

    • bill barlow

      Having actually assembled the transit portion of the most recent North Carolina STIP (which is readily available but needs some manipulation when you care to do more than view individual projects), I can attest that the $100 million annual expenditure quoted is merely the State dollars contributed to transit. With local and federal share match (which is included in the STIP) that figure is usually closer to $500 million a year.

      I agree STIP documents could be improved to avoid misinterpretation information, that is useful for comparisons like the one attempted by the author.

  • Progressive Capitalist

    If there are no teeth on how to spend the money, then it shouldn’t even be collected. Eliminate the Federal gas tax and let the States decide if they will still tax themselves more to satisfy such highway-happy addictions.

  • Kyle

    As noted at the end of the post, states do not need to enter state funding in the STIP that is not matched to Federal funds. In Massachusetts we passed a multi-billion dollar Accelerated Bridge Program bond bill which if listed in the STIP would drastically increase spending on the maintenance of roads and bridges.

    Also important to note is that it is generally understood that the Feds won’t do anything with increased funding for transportation and that if a states wants to spend more on transportation, they have to come up with it themselves.

    In the future if states want to improve their transportation systems, states will be responsible for raising their own funding. Once this starts to take place with more and more states, a more accurate analysis can take place that shows which type of modal transportation funding priorities states have.

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