The Highway-Transit Alliance Strains the Senate’s Energy Legislation

» Why is the American Public Transportation Association lobbying against helpful legislation? Blame a culture of collaboration between highway and transit interests.

Here’s one inconvenient truth holding in line the status quo of automobile dependency in the United States: the nation’s primary proponent of transit, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), stands on virtually every issue hand-in-hand with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the nation’s main advocates of increased highway spending.

For both organizations, cooperation on transportation legislation has meant steady support for such bills in Congress over the years under both Democratic and Republican leadership. Put simply, the unstated alliance between the two makes compromise possible between urban, suburban, and rural legislators, who have vastly differing perspectives when it comes to what kinds of transportation to fund. Over the past year, throughout the debate on how to advance the reauthorization of the nation’s transportation funding system, APTA and AASHTO have shown themselves committed to retaining a structural funding split in favor of highways over other modes of travel, and they’ve stood steadily with a user fee-based transportation network, despite the fact that that reliance systematically enforces automobile dependency.

The organizations’ approach to the Senate’s proposed energy and climate legislation has been little different. Early in May, Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) introduced the “American Power Act,” which would collect funds from carbon emitters and distribute $6.25 billion for the purposes of aiding “clean” transportation; one third of funds would go respectively to merit-based grants from the DOT, local land use planning, and the highway trust fund.

In a joint statement in mid-May, APTA and AASHTO argued against the bill because about two-thirds of new revenues sourced from fuel consumption would be directed to non-transportation related investments, equivalent to heresy in their minds. According to the organizations, “This significantly undermines the user fee principle for financing federal transportation improvements that has served our nation and our economy well for more than 50 years.” The organizations argue that all of the bill’s revenues should be directed to the Highway Trust Fund, which basically means providing a hand-out to highway-obsessed state DOTs that will spend too much money on new roads construction while ignoring maintenance.

In a take-down of APTA’s policy objectives, Ya-Ting Liu of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign wrote yesterday of that organization’s “mystifying protest” of the Kerry/Lieberman legislation. Ms. Liu demonstrates that this bill has far more for transit than other legislative possibilities and that APTA’s commitment to maintaining support for the Highway Trust Fund runs in opposition to its own interests. But she put it well when she argues that “The industry groups’ position is essentially a call to prevent all change in how transportation projects are funded.”

Sean Barry chimes in for Transportation for America, pointing out that while there may be insufficient funding for transportation in this bill, its passage is independent from that of the far more relevant transportation reauthorization bill. Mr. Barry writes correctly that “Kerry-Lieberman is the first new source of revenue for transportation in many, many years and more than has ever been allocated in one bill,” other than in transportation-specific legislation.

Let it be clear: the “American Power Act” is a pretty flawed instrument: it fails to enforce true reductions in carbon emissions and it would provide large subsidies to the power industry. Moreover, its chance of passage has been delayed because of almost unanimous Republican opposition to any and all legislation proposed by the ruling Democrats.

But at least it makes an attempt at addressing climate change issues, more than can be said of almost every piece of legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress. The bill recognizes the value of “clean” transportation; APTA should see that as a friendly message, rather than something to fight against because it could push the group into unfamiliar territory.

Yet the current transportation funding mechanisms are largely popular in Washington; despite the clear benefits of increasing contributions from the general fund, virtually everyone — from Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on down — is convinced that because the country has always relied on user fees (charging highway drivers) to pay for transportation, it should continue to do so. But unless governments begin charging automobile users for the negative environmental results of their travel decisions, a user fee approach will result in a continued lack of adequate funds for alternative transportation projects because of a lack of political support for a reallocation of those dollars to transit, which “doesn’t pay for itself.” APTA’s leaders must confront this fact.

Sadly, the political reality suggests that there’s little chance of that happening. Because of under-representation of urban areas in Congress (particularly in the Senate), forces advocating public transportation will always lose out to highway proponents in a one-on-one battle. Meanwhile, especially under relatively transit-friendly Democratic control, the roads lobby cannot pretend to ignore the needs of transit users. Thus the inescapable and poisonous relationship between APTA and AASHTO.


I’d like to end this post with a thanks to Elana Schor, who has spent the last year writing day-in, day-out on transportation policy over at Streetsblog Capitol Hill; she is moving on to environmental reporting at Greenwire. Elana has made transportation reporting an art, and I’ll miss her very significant contribution to the field.

Image above: Chicago’s Red Line El running along Dan Ryan Expressway, from Flickr user Urban Woodswalker

38 replies on “The Highway-Transit Alliance Strains the Senate’s Energy Legislation”

You’re far too kind … particularly when you’re turning out posts like this to fill the Streetsblog Capitol Hill void. (Some more food for thought: The Community Transportation Assn of America has positioned itself as a political rival to APTA, taking a less fixed approach to the operating aid issue, for one One wonders how they would view the climate bill.)

Actually, I believe the CTAA joined with and signed the APTA/AASHTO letter to Kerry/Lieberman asking them to start over with the transportation section.

D’oh – you’re right, Steve. Though it’s still nice to see a counterweight to APTA enter the fray…

Not to be pedantic, but in your photo caption it’s the “Dan Ryan Expressway”, not “Dan Ryan Freeway”.

I wasn’t gonna nitpick, but it seems like everybody else is doing it… Chicago has an L system, not an El system. You can also encase the letter L in single quotes, like so: ‘L’.

The AASHTO Board voted last week to slightly revise its position, and now calls for all transportation-generated revenue to be dedicated to federal surface transportation programs instead of to the Highway Trust Fund. That provides additional flexibility for how funds are spent.

BTW I don’t think APTA and AASHTO are opposing the bill, but are opposing the plan to divert about 2/3 of the transportation-generated revenue away from transportation programs. Seems only fair to provide transportation agencies (state and local) with the funding to help comply with directives to reduce emissions and VMT.

“opposing the plan to divert about 2/3 of the transportation-generated revenue away from transportation programs”

But if one-third goes to the Highway Trust Fund and one-third goes to competitive grants doled out by the USDOT in the nature of TIGER grants, isn’t that two-thirds for transportation programs, on only a one-third diversion?

Is the general idea that if the APTA opposes AASHTO then they don’t get anything as opposed to getting crumbs?

K-L is a bad bill with big industry payouts that institutionalizes permitted pollution. It would be better to admit the pollution is an absolute negative with no permissible level and fine it with a straight tax. As for transport funding, I’d like to see transit’s share of spending increase, but to get there we need better solutions that grow total revenues and actually achieve compromise. I think there is a way to do it. We need to leverage anti-deficit sentiment and the desire for greater local control.
1.) A gas tax increase is politically hard, but with deficit concerns looming large in the electorate there is a clear case for a small rise to achieve budget balance. Does anyone have the math on what it would take to reach balance in the trust fund? Would going from 18.4c/gal. current to 20c/gal. do it? This would be a perfect issue for a lame-duck reconciliation bill after the election. As long as all it does is raise the tax to improve budget balance, it can pass with 50+Biden in the Senate.
2.) The resistance to gas taxes and anything else that raises the price of road transport is understandable from rural areas since they’re unlikely to have any realistic alternatives and for farmers/ranchers it’s a business cost in getting thier product to market – some of them are running tight margins as it is. Agricultural exports are one of the only areas that this country still maintains a trade surplus and reducing thier competitiveness significantly is a non-starter in the Senate. Although they receive a subsidy for road-miles compared to tax inputs right now, political math won’t change to reflect logic any time soon. Rural congresspeople will hold (perhaps rightly) that urban dwellers benefit from cheaper foodstuffs with a lower tax. So, to address this fundamental urban-rural divide, Can the feds give MPO’s the power to levy an additional 5c or 10c/gal.? The benefits are that rural places outside an MPO would remain at the lower tax rate. Also, since MPO’s would decide on thier tax rate and collect 100% of it – they (metro areas – not States) would have clear control over how to spend it. That would be a dramatic improvement over current process where we wait decades to get projects funded in the federal beggars line and compete with other urban areas. Some roads would be funded that way, but MPO’s in general tend to be more favorable to transit than state DOT’s. The federally collected portion of tax should be directed to actual National priorities based on *gasp* a plan – including the rural road, rail, air and sea connections between metros.
3.) Allow tolling on all interstates, not just new lane-miles – which encourages expansion, but with a caveat that two travel lanes in each direction remain free. That preserves the original Eisenhower interstate concept, and addresses equity issues because there would always be a “free-way” to travel, but it provides an opportunity to manage congestion more actively, and to use the tolled lanes for faster transit service and for revenue generation that offsets declining gas taxes.
4.) Parking charges correlate highly with transit ridership, so additional efforts should be undertaken to increase the cost of parking or at least reduce public sector provision of free or subsidized parking. No city that provides free street parking should be complaining about not having transit operations dollars.
5.) This is radical, but hear me out – Electric cars are coming and the biggest challenge in adoption seems to be range anxiety. This is because there has been too much focus on the battery and a fixed recharge location. We have been powering/recharging electric vehicles at high speed for well over a century with catenary – correct, railroad buffs? So why can’t we put a pole on a car, let the onboard computer drive it into a tolled highway lane and draw power from catenary strung overhead? How much would it cost relative to refining and transporting liquid fuel everywhere? We don’t need to cover every mile of highway, just calculate how many miles it takes to recharge and what range that gives (20/100 means you string 1/5th of the highway miles). Private companies could build it to collect the toll/power fee. Limit it to stretches outside urban areas since charging is more available inside metro’s and range anxiety will be highest on longer trips.
The corollary for transit providers – we all need to be watching the fast charging, pure electric projects funded by ARRA. Those are showing us the way to a clean future safe from fuel price volatility.

I have to disagree on the carbon tax. That approach 1) will not work internationally and 2) will go through the same political meatgrinder but the changes will be much more problematic in terms of undermining the legislation’s intent of reducting greenhouse gases. This second is best illustrated with some examples.

So let’s say we do the carbon tax, and now the government has a new revenue stream. Meanwhile, perhaps gas prices spike again, and politicians decide to get rid of the gas tax — after all, we’re now getting that money from the carbon tax, much of which comes from driving, so let’s just spend that money on the roads, right? Now we’ve lowered the same price we raised and aren’t really doing much to discourage driving, but hey, we put that carbon tax in place so we’re doing our part on global warming and China needs to get their act together before we consider raising our carbon tax further.

So you might object, isn’t exactly the same thing happening here? But it isn’t exactly the same, because even if they do away with the gas tax entirely and spend a lot on highways, that doesn’t change the total CO2 emissions because there won’t be any more CO2 permits available with these changes — the price of permits goes up, so perhaps the cost of driving still goes up a little and the cost of coal burning goes up more, and somewhere someone can’t get a permit to emit some CO2 so the reduction still happens.

Like I say below, I don’t like the idea of using money generated from CO2 permits as a user fee for building roads. But the problem isn’t one of increased CO2 emissions, it’s one of inefficient allocation of resources — we spend more than we should on highways and pay for it on our electric bills.

Another way money from CO2 permits (or taxes) will be used is some kind of tax breaks to help the poor hit with high energy bills. I actually don’t think this is a bad idea, if we’re doing cap-and-trade — it can make the reductions happen more equitably. But with a carbon tax, this sort of thing just undermines it’s effectiveness.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take a C&T if that’s what we can get. But I think the shortcomings are significant. I think a carbon tax has better resonance internationally. The cap&trade institutionalizes the Right to pollute with the current polluters who get the permits to trade. Other nations don’t want to buy the ability to pollute from us. And China and India have already said they won’t agree to cap or reduce emissions, they are only agreeing to reduce economic energy intensity. A tax is easier to verify and keep all parties honest about the actual impacts. It can aim for stable revenues (increasing tax rate from decreasing emissions) that would keep it economically neutral over time and reduce political pressures to raise or lower it to fund other activities, unless emissions targets were not being met. That part’s not substantially different from the C&T.
In almost any proposal coming forward a significant amount of revenue gets returned back to the economy, not funneled into other gov’t expenditures so I don’t see the worry of losing other sources aside from existing efficiency driven declines. The simple accounting and collection associated with a tax has far less administrative cost than a C&T market and there is less potential for fraud (Europe’s cap n trade system has already seen a number of questionable trades).
A tax makes pollution an absolute negative in which case avoiding it is always good, and there is more incentive to reduce GHG’s faster than the targets. A cap can provide the assurance of that strict upward bound, but paradoxically if we do a really good job eliminating emissions then the price of credits plunges and a strong incentive emerges to stop innovating. A tax can be set to rise automatically or like a property levy to hit a revenue target – and a supportive constituency can be created by driving revenues into a broad based rebate. We could rebate 99.9% of the GHG tax – to individuals, so they can make their own choice on what energy to consume or to purchase something other than energy. We may need to make the rebate State based so high pollution state residents get a bigger rebate – theoretically offsetting their quicker rising energy bills.
The political perspective also supports a tax because with a C&T program you need to enact a lot of policies and regulations that take 60 Senate votes and years of federal rulemaking – then court challenges. With a tax – congress clearly has the power levy taxes on anything they want. The rate can be implemented with minimal rulemaking and no set up time for a marketplace. Accounting rules on GHG’s can be adopted from an existing source as a definition in the bill, not a regulation. And even with a rebate of 99.99% of revenue – If the simple provisions of a simple GHG tax help the federal budget come even one dollar closer to balance – the whole thing can be passed under reconciliation with only 50 votes (plus VP Biden).
Has anyone actually learned the lesson of the health care victory???
If you keep your legislation entirely fiscal, and just barely budget positive – then you get to pass it with a simple majority!!!!!

Counting both federal and state highways, total US highway spending is about $75 billion higher than total user fees. This analysis includes all tolls and gas taxes as fees, including those diverted to non-highway uses, but conversely includes gas tax and toll collection costs as highway spending. To balance this, a total hike of 50 cents per gallon would be required, assuming zero change in consumer behavior.

The urban-rural divide could naturally be addressed with pollution taxes. In urban areas, the cost of cars’ air pollution is on the order of $2-3 per gallon of gas burned; this does not include GHG. Most rural areas have good air quality, and so do not need a high pollution tax. So there could be a law saying that there would be an urban-level pollution tax, but tax receipts in areas that are in attainment of EPA guidelines (i.e. rural areas plus the cleaner cities) have to go to the region they were collected from. The obvious problem is that in reality all taxes flow from urban to rural areas, so putting up a taxes-stay-where-they-were-collected rule favors urban areas; however, it addresses the perception that rural areas are paying more than their fair share.

Trolleywire-charged electric cars are not coming anytime soon, for a couple of reasons. First, electrifying 2.6 million miles of paved highways is prohibitively costly. Second, self-driving cars are still a fantasy. Third, trolleywires limit top speed; trolleybuses are limited to 35-45 mph, whereas ordinary diesel buses can do 70 or more.

Alon, this is a most helpful piece of information (the $75 billion figure). But what is it based on?

I’d like to know because it needs to be pushed out there against every bit of road-biased disinformation about “self-funding.”

Also, where you have local option taxation you do get an urban-rural divide on taxes already that I think may be helpful; Chicago, with its city, county and RTA sales taxes and city and county gas taxes, is an especially good example. Regular unleaded is 60 cents a gallon more in the city than Downstate, and about 30 cents more than in the burbs. At the very least it’s a good place to see what higher urban fuel taxes actually mean in practice.

You can get it all from the Federal Highway Administration. Total user fee receipts in 2008 were $122 billion. Total spending was $182 billion net including bond retirement and debt interest, plus $10.6 billion placed in reserves for future spending, plus $4.3 billion collection expenses. In total, this is $75 billion.

New York has a similar fuel gas situation to Chicago, for rather different reasons. New York has higher fuel taxes than New Jersey, which means that people who live in Downstate New York west of the Hudson, for example in Rockland County, often take trips to Jersey for gas. (If you live east of the Hudson, a car trip to Jersey involves crossing a congested, tolled bridge.)

Does this figure include any traffic enforcement costs, state and local police and courts? Well, maybe most of those costs should be charged against the beer & alcohol user fees.

thank you for those numbers. We should leave out state revenues and expenditures since they have independent taxing authority.

According to table FE-10, In 2009, $7b was transferred to the Highway Trust Fund from the General Fund. Gasoline tax accounts for about 2/3 of total Gross Excise Taxes feeding the Trust Fund. So we would need to get between $4-5b annually to make up the shortfall. Based on Table MF-2, the gasoline volume taxed in 2008 was 133.5b gal. That was a bad year for gas sales, down 3% from the year before, but we are on a downslope with efficiency gains coming, so… getting $5b out of that gasoline volume requires an additional 3.74c tax for a total federal tax rate of a little over 22c. That’s a bit higher than I hoped, but within the realm of political possibility. We could pass an immediate increase to 20c and a 1c add on each year of the next authorization, bringing it to 25c and giving some breathing room.

I think your pollution tax is grossly overestimated. where is the figure from? Agree with the comments about NY, Chicago and urban/suburban tax differences – NJ has just about the lowest gas tax in the nation. I Admit I hadn’t thought of piling on top of those existing differences. Perhaps we need something more solidly location based like a federal vehicle registration fee. That could incorporate pollution characteristics of the vehicle. The point is to come up with a funding source for MPO’s since that is where planning decisions are made. I think they should have a dedicated revenue stream to carry out the plans they are mandated to create. You are right Alon about tax flow from urban to rural. I guess this is a sneaky way to use rural anti-tax sentiment to wall them off from reaping the benefit of urban areas willingness to tax themselves.
There were 248m registered vehicles(from DV-1C) so a fee of $100 per vehicle would generate $24.8b to be spread around. There was no urban-rural breakdown but even if you assumed a lower fee with lower total registrations you could reasonably take 1/2 that amount. Round it to an extra $12b annually in the pot to stir around. That’s serious.

As for the electric car catenary – I’m no electrical engineer, but I don’t see how your 3rd point is valid – about wires limiting speed. Trains go over 200mph, on catenary. Getting a car to draw power at 70mph looks like a simple engineering challenge. On your 2nd point, I’m not talking about city driving, only highway driving on segregated tolled lanes. Most cars already have the capability to maintain speed and some now maintain lane position. We ARE there, but manufacturers are waiting to install all the features in production models because they want common standards adopted and a liability exemption/cap from congress. There are too many articles to quote on that, so I trust you can use google. And your 1st point – whoa! 2 million miles? I’m talking about rural interstates = 30,227mi. (from HM-41) so 1/5, if that would be sufficient, comes to 6,000 mi. of wire. That would be built by Private power companies in order to sell thier power to people on the move (with a ROW concenssion and regulated monopoly from DOT of course). There is also the option to use induction charging instead of wires, but I know even less about that.
Thanks for the critique.

First: yes, my analysis is federal + state. But conversely, it only uses current accounts; it doesn’t include the deferred maintenance on roads as future spending. The only analysis I know of that does was done in Texas and was published in the Keep Texas Moving newsletter and then buried; you can find it cached. It says that Texas’s best-performing highways return 50 cents on the dollar.

Second: the pollution tax number comes from two sources. One is Greg Mankiw. I can’t find his analysis right now, but he wrote a report in 2003 that said the proper pollution tax should be $2.11/gallon (or $2.21 – I forget right now). The other is a 2007 survey from Toronto using 2004 data that concludes that the city’s cars’ air pollution kills 440 people a year, costing the city $2.2 billion at the standard monetary value of human life used for insurance purposes; the study does not compute the cost per gallon, but it includes a greenhouse gas inventory, which combined with emission numbers per gallon of gas yields a total cost of $2.2 per gallon. I’m saying $2-3 because the Toronto study excludes non-fatal health effects from its projected pollution cost.

Mind you, the above numbers have a large range of uncertainty. Mankiw doesn’t provide a confidence interval, but the Toronto study does, and it’s a factor of 2 in either direction. A third study, due to the National Research Council, estimates a much lower pollution cost, $56 billion US-wide, or about 35 cents per gallon; its confidence interval is a factor of 3 in each direction for gas and 6 for diesel.

Third: trains are capable of running fast under catenary. Buses aren’t. The trolleywire buses use is different from the one that trains use. Trains use just one wire, with one of the rails acting as return current. Buses need two wires, which means they use a more complex trolleypole, which hugs the wire instead of just touching it.

And fourth: 6,000 miles of Interstate aren’t enough for anything. For comparison, Yonah’s proposed HSR map, which is much smaller than the Interstates, is 10,000. To provide enough coverage for catenary-powered cars to be feasible you’d need to cover not just all the Interstates but also the local streets that feed them. Most of those are not rural branch roads, but urban and suburban streets.

(Yes, cars can maintain position on constant-speed, congestion-free, controlled-access freeways. But if it were safe, the auto manufacturers wouldn’t be looking for a liability cap. And it doesn’t solve the issue of connecting roads. While a significant chunk of US driving uses freeways, none uses freeways exclusively, by the definition of access control.)

Thanks for that data Alon. very interesting.
I think you may be misunderstanding my electric car concept – They would not be constantly connected to catenary to run everywhere – only to recharge batteries when taking long distance trips. The Nissan Leaf coming out this year will have a 100 mile range. So it’s only when you travel beyond that when you need to recharge. I used the 1/5 of miles as a hypothetical; It would depend on how many miles are needed to recharge and how much battery range that produces. In my example, a car is “on the wire” for 20 miles, then “on battery” for 80, then back on the wire. So only 1/5 of miles are strung and the car never runs out of battery power. The recharge should take place with the vehicle under computer control along a limited access stretch. When the car is charged, or your exit approaches, you take back control. Mfg’s always want liability protection, because safe still doesn’t mean 100%. If catenary doesn’t work, there are other ways for a moving vehicle to draw power – embedded rails or induction perhaps? The point is that because the car is using that infrastructure to recharge its onboard capacity and then using it’s internal battery power to drive, we can cover some fraction of the roads, not the entire network, and still have pretty good coverage. Off the interstates we can have battery swap stations and standard recharging at parking locations.
I’m just trying to demonstrate the flaw in thinking that people will need to get off the highway and sit at a rest area recharging their electric car for 4 hours every 100 miles, which is typically what I encounter from people who poo-poo electric cars. I think a good engineer will come up with a way to recharge quickly in motion and that will relieve range anxiety, put less pressure on increasing the onboard battery range, and be very useful to spur greater adoption of electric vehicles.
And even with that kind of enthusiasm for the future of cars, I still want to see a lot less of them in cities and way more transit offerings, because I like vibrant, active, safe, people friendly places. Thus, my emphasis on tolls and parking charges to drive transit demand.

No, even with the 1/5 system, it’s not enough. A lot of travel is off-highway, often for long stretches of road. To really serve the full road network, you’d have to wire 1/5 of the entire highway system.

It is not true that any amount of CO2 is a net negative — the dose makes the poison, and cutting to zero would mean starving.

Cap and trade has a significant advantage over a straight carbon tax in which variable is set by public policy, and which emerges as an effect thereof. The goal is to get emissions under a certain level. With a carbon tax, the government sets a tax rate, and we hope we predicted elasticity of demand well enough (and honestly enough) that emissions decrease by the amount we seek. With cap and trade, we control how many permits are auctioned (ideally) or given away (unfortunately more likely at first), and the market deals with setting the price.

Tolling some lanes but not others often leads to problems crossing the congested free lanes to get to the toll lanes — and if the free lanes are not congested, nobody will use the toll lanes. I’d congestion-charge all the lanes where warranted, and let the surface streets be the “free” alternative (if you like wasting your gas), and transit the economical alternative.

Street parking isn’t as bad as off-street parking (especially single-use driveways and lots), and can substitute for it. I’d use minimum parking requirements or other subsidies for off-street parking instead if you’re to base transit funding on parking policy.

Actually, we have to go net-negative on CO2 to avoid total world disaster. I think the only way to force this is a cap-and-trade system where pollution permits are *only* generated by pollution offsets (from tree planting, etc.)

Name one trading system or exchange that is not “gamed” by the traders? Now, name one tax that business doesn’t try it’s damdest to avoid? Do you want to create a system that encourages deceit and corruption? or one that avoids pollution?
China and India are not going to agree to a cap. Ever. They have very clearly, unambiguously stated that several times. We (USA) don’t have the leverage anymore to make them change that position. That’s why James Hansen and many others who are serious about this now support a tax mechanism. We can easily extend the tax to imported goods from countries that refuse to impose a tax on themeselves. and we can pass it with 50 votes.
There are not 60 votes in the senate for climate legislation, and there is no indication that there will be anytime soon. So there is no option to pass C&T even if it is the best thing ever. We can pass a tax. Are you OK with that? or should we keep spewing toxins indefinitely?

The problem is not user fees, and the problem is much simpler than you’re making it. The point of the gas tax is to pay for the roads necessary to support the cars, whereas the point of this legislation is to pay for the external costs associated with emitting CO2. Asking it to pay for both is like insisting that every dollar you gave to the dealer when you bought the car be put into the highway trust fund — ultimately, you’re insisting some of the costs of driving be un-paid-for.

T4A is cited as saying that passage of the American Power Act is independent of passage of a new transportation act … that’s not how the institutional transportation players are portraying it, and I’m inclined to agree with them. What is standing in the way of the new trans act is Congress and the White House fear to increase the gas tax — even fear to implement an upstream per barrel tax on motor fuel refining. I think it’s a mistaken fear, but this is their position and it is very deeply held. Now along comes the APA, which imposes a per-barrel tax on petroleum, including motor fuels, only a small portion of which goes to transportation. Institutional transportation groups fear — perhaps rightly — that after having imposed a petroleum tax for climate change, Congress will insist on waiting several more years before daring to utter the words “gas tax.” No gas tax increase, no new federal transportation act.

As a representative of the public transportation industry, we are long time advocates and strong supporters of our country seriously addressing our energy and climate challenges.

Public transit use is a part of the solution for the nation to reduce its dependence on foreign oil and transportation related emissions. In fact today, public transit saves the country 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually. It also prevents 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from going into the air every year.

APTA takes issue with the premise of your argument and wants to remind your readers of three important points you overlooked and neglected to mention.

First, the “American Power Act,” as currently proposed by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), misses the opportunity to invest significantly in public transportation. The current level of transportation funding in the draft bill is insufficient to maintain, much less improve, public transit services.

Second, the legislation would generate more than $19.5 billion in revenues from transportation motor fuels in 2013, but little of that revenue is returned to improving our transportation system. Over the life of the bill, at least 77 percent of that revenue would be diverted away from investment in public transportation and other surface transportation improvements. In later years, as the price of carbon increases, the percentage diverted could be as much as 91 percent. We want Congress to invest 100 percent of the revenue generated from transportation use to fulfill the nation’s growing transportation needs.

Third, diverting transportation revenues in a climate bill would harm efforts to raise funding for a new transportation bill that improves transit service. Congress has used revenue from motor fuel fees for transportation improvements since 1956, and today these fees support our public transportation systems, as well all other modes of surface transportation. In order to help achieve energy independence and provide safe and reliable transit service, revenues from transportation use should continue to be invested to improve the nation’s public transportation and other surface transportation systems.

APTA and AASTHO are not alone in their concerns about the “American Power Act;” 26 other transportation industry groups have joined together to advise Senators Kerry and Lieberman that their proposal – that diverts user fees from motor fuels while our roads, bridges and transit systems are neglected – is not sound policy.

Finally, from the public transportation industry’s perspective, we are very supportive of legislation addressing our climate and energy issues, and believe that public transit has a significant role to play. We are working with Senators to improve climate legislation, not oppose it. We find ourselves today with a proposal where the current level of transportation funding is insufficient to maintain, much less improve, public transit services and our nation’s roads and bridges. This is a missed opportunity.

There’s one good argument in your post that could sway me – namely, the bit about “19.5 billion in revenues from transportation motor fuels.” This is about 17 cents per gallon of gas, which contrasts with consensus carbon-tax estimates of $1/gal.

Everything else you say is just rent-seeking. Nothing is being “diverted from investment in public transportation.” Carbon fees aren’t yours by right any more than cigarette taxes belong to smoking cessation groups. That you’re partnering with AASTHO makes it even worse: nobody in their right mind would spend cigarette taxes on cigarette advertising, but AASTHO wants to send some fuel taxes back to roads. Both carbon and cigarette taxes require the users to pay upfront the long-term cost of their activities to themselves and to others; on the contrary, to do anything but throw the money into general revenue would be a subsidy.

This is where you have to choose between making transit better and making APTA a bigger lobbying organization. To get good transit investment, you need to stop supporting freeways. The US gains nothing from building two separate transportation systems; only the contractors gain. If you want to make transit better, ask states to reallocate general revenue subsidies from roads to transit.

How do you get your figures? They seem wrong, Ms. Miller.

TIGER Grants (1/3 of the money) is transportation funding.
“Highway Trust Fund” money (1/3 of the money) is transportation funding.

Even if you don’t recognize the link between land use policies and transportation — and I for one think that if the 1/3 spent on land use policies was all devoted to making walkable, bikeable communities with integrated public transport, it would be transportation spending — this amounts to 2/3 spent on transportation, 1/3 not. So where do you get the 77% not-transportation figure?

Did you just make it up?

Oho, I get it. You’re using a sloppy definition of “carbon permit costs collected from transportation” as your basis of how much you think transportation deserves in funding. I didn’t get that on first reading.

This is a bullshit way of analyzing, to put it bluntly. By this idea, the most polluting and inefficient areas of the economy (== most permit income collected by government) deserve the most investment. It makes no sense.

It’s rent-seeking.

very good points there about the diversion of funds. Thank you for sharing those. I think actually fuel taxes were used as far back as the early 30’s.
The only problem I have is in your initial statement. I am totally sick of greenwashing BS when organizations claim “Saved” or “prevented” GHG emissions. It takes a pretty sophisticated economic model to say what *would* happen absent availability of transit. I think APTA’s calculations are too simplistic to give me confidence in the numbers.
I actually do see a huge benefit to transit in terms of it’s potential to be efficient and sustainable, but the truth is, right now, buses run on diesel, and electric trains are often powered by coal. We need to stop relying on comparisons to earn our green badge and start cleaning up our own house. The ARRA projects funding hybrids and electric buses are a good start. More needs to be done. The added benefit will be less exposure to fuel price volatility and its devastating impact on operating budgets.

Eric: Actually, not all buses run on diesel. Maybe you already knew this, but something like a third are now either CNG, LNG, biodiesel, or hybrid.

But even if you’re talking about the oldest, dirties bus you can find: If there are 30 people on that bus who otherwise would’ve been driving 30 different cars to work, there’s no question that those 30 cars would be producing a lot more emissions and carbon than the one bus–unless they’re all driving Teslas.

I think APTA’s viewpoint (if I haven’t misunderstood) is that the fees that the K/L bill would impose will be passed down to the gas pump. So to the user, it feels exactly like a tax–their gas price went up by 10 cents/gallon. If this were to pass, it would be harder to get a gas tax increase, even though it’s been 18 cents since 1992.

The way it’s set up now (and has been the last 50 years), if you raise the gas tax, all the revenues go to transportation–highways and transit. But with this “linked fee” or whatver they’re calling it, it’s capped at what, $6 billion a year? Whereas if the gas tax had been raised to the same end price per gallon, it all–100%–would’ve gone to transportation.

Hopefully Virginia will correct me if I got that wrong.

The FTA studied the issue, and it turns out CNG has the same greenhouse gas emissions as diesel. I think that so does biofuel once you include the energy that goes into growing it, but that’s beside the point as fuel crops are a much bigger human rights violation than GHG emissions.

Hybrids reduce bus emissions by about 33% relative to diesel. The average non-NYC diesel bus in the US gets a little under 4 vehicle-mpg, the average hybrid gets a little more than 5. In either case, you’d rather the bus were popular than clean. For example, New York City Transit buses average about 33% more emissions per vehicle-mile than the national average because of road congestion, but they’re also about twice as full, so the per-passenger emissions are much lower. (In case anyone cares: US buses average 36 passenger-miles per gallon of diesel, which is emission-equivalent to 31.3 pmpg of gasoline; NYCT buses average 54 pmpg diesel, or 47 pmpg gas. According to the FTA, US subways are emission-equivalent to 82 pmpg gas, but there’s a big range, depending on how busy they are and what the local grid is powered by.)

The APTA argument is more self-serving than you make it sound. The general gist is exactly as you say, but there’s an implicit twist: “if you don’t give us more economic rent funding, we’ll portray the bill as an unfair tax on motorists.” So far, the bill has not faced any opposition on gas-tax-must-go-to-roads grounds. APTA’s stoking of this opposition is the lobbyist version of concern trolling on the Internet, or of orders like “I have a feeling something bad will happen to Mr. Gambini tomorrow” in the mafia.

a correction,. electric trolley buses can and do go 60+mph in many places. in the USA most are governed to lower speeds for a number of reasons, in one state they are governed because if they go any faster they will need to be licensed as motor vehicles, below that speed they are exempt.


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