» 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.