Congress DOT Finance Infrastructure President

At long last, a transportation budget that pays for itself—and recognizes the climate


» One last proposal from President Obama stakes a big claim in favor of improved public transportation instead of highway infrastructure, but given the Congressional environment, hopes for passage are slim.

If Congress’ hostility to President Barack Obama hadn’t already been apparent, the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia certainly pulled back the curtains. Suffice it to say that the administration has very little hope of making significant policy change over the next year.

The administration has taken this opportunity to emphasize the importance transportation plays in contributing to climate change.

Nonetheless, the Administration revealed its big budget proposal last week, and with it a major plan for increased investment in surface transportation. Unlike the FAST five-year bill passed in December by Congress, Obama’s budget would substantially increase funding for transportation infrastructure over the current levels.

As the following chart shows, while budget outlays for highways, transit (Federal Transit Administration), and railroads (Federal Railroad Administration) have remained roughly flat since 2010, Obama proposed major increases for FY 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016* that matched funding or were even higher than the amount dedicated to these types of infrastructure in 2009, during the economic stimulus.

Obama’s budget this year does the same, increasing funding quite substantially for transportation. But what makes the 2017 recommendation so different from those of previous years is that it proposes no net boost in highway infrastructure even as it proposes dramatically expanding funding for alternatives. The Federal Transit Administration would receive about $20 billion next year, compared to $11.8 billion in 2016, with larger formula and capital grants being joined by a “Rapid-Growth Area Transit Program” designed specifically for bus rapid transit in sprawling cities. The Federal Railroad Administration would receive about $6.3 billion, compared to $1.7 billion this year, renewing President Obama’s call for a better intercity rail network.


This is a remarkable focus on transit that diverges from previous Obama budgets, which emphasized transportation investment as an example of a way for everyone to win. In this budget, highways definitively would not—at least to the degree they normally do.

What’s exciting is that the administration has taken this opportunity to recognize the importance transportation plays in contributing to climate change. Rather than simply reinforcing norms about what types of transportation get funding, the budget accepts that increasing spending on highways doesn’t do the environment much good. “To address the challenges of the 21st Century,” the budget notes, “the Nation needs a transportation system that reduces reliance on oil, cuts carbon pollution, and strengthens our resilience to the impacts of climate change.”

It does so by reducing the ratio of highway to transit investments from about four to one to two to one.

Major investments identified in the budget include not only the large increases in formula and capital construction funding for the agencies noted above, but also billions in additional funding for climate-sensitive solutions to be implemented by metropolitan areas and states. $6 billion would be distributed to regions focused on transportation and land use efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; $1.5 billion would go to competitive grants for transit-oriented development; $1.7 billion would go to states whose transportation plans specifically mitigate air pollution; and $750 million would go to bolster climate resilience.

This is an amazing commitment to a cleaner transportation system, the likes of which no sitting president has ever proposed. It is also so different from actual Congressional appropriations to transportation, which continue to be heavily focused on increasing highway construction.

Also unlike the bill passed by the U.S. Congress, the Obama budget would actually pay for itself using transportation user fees—a first for this administration. A $10.25-per-barrel oil tax phased in over five years would, in effect, add $0.238 per gallon in new federal taxes on top of the $0.184 Americans already pay per gallon. It’s an appropriate measure that specifically taxes the major cause of transportation-related carbon emissions.

If this proposal had come earlier in the administration and the president had lobbied hard for it, there would be more to say about its prospects. But with a Congress that hasn’t increased the gas tax since 1993, despite the dramatic shortfalls in revenue that have occurred in the years since, it and the expenditures associated with it won’t happen, at least this year.

New transit projects receive a boost

As a complement to the 2017 budget, the Federal Transit Administration released its proposed funding recommendations for major new public transportation projects. The capital investments include not only the major projects that already have what are referred to as “full funding grant agreements”—including rail systems such as the first phase of Los Angeles’ Westside subway extension and Honolulu’s elevated line—but also future projects that the executive branch has endorsed for federal support.

Projects selected for funding include the second phase of L.A.’s subway; San Diego’s Mid-Coast Corridor; a streetcar line in Santa Ana; Maryland’s Purple Line light rail; Minneapolis’ Green Line light rail extension; TEX Rail between Fort Worth and DFW airport; and a northern extension of Seattle’s light rail. The project list also includes 14 other projects that are either renovations of existing lines or smaller projects, primarily BRT. They can all be mapped using Transit Explorer.

In spite of joyous news articles and press releases from cities around the country hailing a federal commitment to funding their relevant projects, the list of investments proposed by the FTA is far longer than will likely be funded. Whereas the 2016 budget for major transit capital expenditures was $2.2 billion, this list includes federal commitments for the $3.5 billion corresponding to the increase in funding the president is proposing for transportation overall—in other words, far more than Congress is likely to approve.

Take this list of federal commitments with a grain of salt: Many of these projects are not going to be approved for support this year.

What does this budget suggest about the future?

The administration’s on-and-off plans for big transportation investments have become something of a joke in policy circles; while exciting for those with active imaginations, this year’s budget, like those of previous years, isn’t much to write home about because it won’t happen. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration is offering one way to actually fund an increased investment in the American transportation system, and it wouldn’t be hard for his successor to adopt these ideas and offer them up as his or her own. Assuming a more willing Congress, these proposals could provide a framework for a new way of thinking about federal transportation spending that is more respectful of the climate and less focused on highway building.

A willing successor, though, would probably have to be one of the two Democrats in the presidential race, both of whom have supported new transportation investments and claim to care deeply about the climate. GOP candidate and Florida Senator Marco Rubio has proposed cutting the federal gas tax by 80 percent and eliminating transit funding; Ohio Governor John Kasich has a similar plan; Texas Senator Ted Cruz wants to eliminate federal New Starts funding; as governor, Jeb Bush destroyed a Florida high-speed rail plan. Donald Trump has made infrastructure investment, including in transit, one of his campaign’s slogans, but he, like all of the rest, seems to believe climate issues are irrelevant.

No matter what, the next president won’t have it easy: Cities and states are desperate for new transportation funding and will continue to ask the Congress to devote more to highways and transit. And mounting evidence of coming economic malaise suggests that new government stimulus of some sort may, in the end, be an important component of a future recovery plan. Perhaps Obama’s last budget will set the tone for something even better.

* To be clear, the administration’s first budget was for FY 2010, since President Obama entered office in January 2009. The stimulus was attributed to FY 2009.

Photo at top: University Link light rail under construction in Seattle, from Flickr user SoundTransit (cc).

19 replies on “At long last, a transportation budget that pays for itself—and recognizes the climate”

First, congratulations on cracking the NYT OpEd page with your piece on how NYC can learn from other cities’ light rail experiences. (I assume the “NYT” doesn’t encourage comments, otherwise I would have made one.)

Second, for your piece on the Obama budget. I suppose this bump in the budget proposal provides some reason to be hopeful. But the bump does little to alter that roads seem to get 75% of the federal capital money and, if I recall, the same goes for the federal gas tax; making the absolute budget numbers absolutely ridiculously stuck in the auto-dominated 20th Century.

A near-consensus conclusion is to increase the sales tax for transit. We must recognize this strategy will decline in effectiveness as chronic fiscal conditions squeeze the wiggle-room out of the sales tax. (Example, how Cook County recently took the sales tax increase proposed by Transit Future and, instead, used it to pay pensions.)

Clearly, we need user fees that even the subsidy playing field by charging cars for the true cost of their roads and their true damage to the air we breathe and their true damage to household budgets and, as we discovering, waistlines.

Such user fees make the benefits of transit seem so much economically better and might even inspire Americans to look as trim as you.

Back to New York and New Jersey… The Port Authority and MTA are able to invest at a far higher rate than, say, Chicago because they have the user fee of tolling bridges and tunnels. In effect, transit taxes its competition. And we see the results: NYC has a transit commuting rate that is twice of Chicago’s.

Maybe Chicago should re-consider user fees for driving into the City center ?
Maybe this user-fee authority should be part of the negotiations as Illinois continues to throw Chicago under the proverbial fiscal bus?

Fiscal balance requires a new deal between cities and states. So does transit investment.

In the long run, you may have a point about the source of funding for transit. In the mean time, it is the quickest source of revenue without tapping the general fund for budget cuts elsewhere. We can’t go on forever with dangerous transportation infrastructure and inadequate rapid transit options to lower per capita drives in our Top 100 Metro Areas:

It’s just such a pity Obama didn’t present this in 2009, when we had a Democratic majority in Congress and this could have passed.

You are 100% right. He made Obamacare a higher priority. Which, by 2010 Election cycle and renewal time for the Surface Transportation Bill, scared away many DINOs from supporting many planks in the best of his agenda..

I’m extremely concerned that this proposal includes a $0.24 additional gas tax. This is a significant sum of money that drivers would need to shell out, even acknowledging the higher gas efficiency in our cars.
And as much as it would impact us drivers in our pockets, it would also impact trucking costs – and those costs would similarly be passed on to the consumer.

How about we look for savings from our over-bloated federal budget *first* before we go right to taxpayers’ pockets? The average person spends 4 months a year working just to pay their taxes. When is enough, enough? In a trillion-dollar budget, we can’t find excess spending to cut? On the contrary: YES WE CAN.

Take your pro-automobile nonsense somewhere else. This is a blog supporting public transit, rail, walking, biking, and the like. Unless, of course, you are ready to be belittled by pretty much everyone on this blog.

I can see where you are coming from; yes, our federal government’s budget needs to be fine-tuned somewhat. But if we don’t discourage using a car AND doing so alone, those 2 degrees Celsius of average global temperature increase will sneak up on us and deliver a punch in the face we’ll NEVER recover from.

In addition, making existing transit users pay the cost of funding for transit, rail, etc. is unreasonable in two ways: First, they are by far a minority (a.k.a. most people commute by auto, which is hurtful) and we won’t get as much funds from punishing them for using public transit. Second, by punishing them for using public transit and rail, we discourage them from continuing to do so, exacerbating our existing problems that are so obvious I do not need to mention them.

How about you go join Americans For Prosperity? They have similar views that you do, and we here at the Transport Politic would be grateful if you got your oil-soaked motives and opinions out of our “online dreamworld” train station/walkable and bikable city.

But, of course, Americans for Prosperity are #KOCHFUNDED!

What a rude and unhelpful reply.

Where did I say I was against public transit?

The title of this post is about self-funding, and I’m perfectly within my rights to say that just perhaps, that isn’t so.

We are $19 trillion in debt.
We need more than “fine tuning” and we have much better ways to fund improvements to public transit than to dig deeper into taxpayers pockets.

As to the rest of your rant, I’m dismissing it outright because it’s not relevant to the topic, which relates to the funding of transit improvements.

When Obama proposed to cut Defense budget waste for a tax-neutral means to pay for Transportation & Education improvements, the GOP Congress has shot it down. So what better ways are you suggesting to fund low overdue public transit improvements?

Where to begin…Obama just freed up $150 billion to Iran so they could continue their nuclear program. He went to Cuba and watched baseball with a dictator. The federal government aliens millions of dollars studying whether hunger is “a real thing.” You should follow Senator Dan Coats and you’ll learn a lot about where our tax dollars go.

There’s plenty more: this website says it faster than I can type.

Not to mention, every time the government nearly shuts down, they send home all “non essential employees.”
Think about that for a moment. They’re non essential…but they have government jobs.

Suffice to say, there’s loads of government waste. Trim that before diving into our pockets.

If you don’t believe me, maybe you should review Obama’s 2009 SOTU address. At least then, he admitted there was government waste.

Given a Republican Congress that would rather see Obama fail, than our country succeed, we should be thankful that the budget deficit isn’t worse and unemployment is down to 4.9%.

Our deficit has TRIPLED these last seven years, including when we had a Democrat controlled Congress.

Donald Trump is saying we need to invest in our infrastructure, paid for the correct way. And he’s got a fantastic shot this November, so there’s hope.

I need to apologize. I’m very sorry, Rebecca. There was no need for that rude and hurtful comment. I definitely need to start taking more time to analyze others’ comments deeply and from entirely different viewpoints.

I was ignorant and blunt, and I shouldn’t have been. I jumped to conclusions on the comment you made–thinking just by a couple of sentences of that comment, not the entire thing, and jumping to the conclusion you were in opposition to transit, rather than thinking it through and saying +1; because you are right: the federal government needs to stop the wasteful portion of their spending. That alone will reduce the costs of numerous programs and projects. It was my fault that I jumped to the wrong conclusion. But I know I can’t take it back. It’s there for as long as the Internet exists–probably forever. In no way am I longing for the ability to take it back–because I can’t.

So if you need to belittle me to make yourself feel better, go ahead. I admit full responsibility for my actions, and you can say all the hurtful things you want to say to me, and I won’t comment back. Not on this entire thread.

Thank you for your nice reply.

I’m going to pose a general question here: if I was against transit, so what? Since when did disagreeing with someone be cause for visceral seething?

(It isn’t.)

Enjoy your day.

Thomas, President Obama proposed a larger defense budget increase in his latest budget than what Congress agreed to. (Partially this is because Obama wants to increase non-defense spending, and finds it easier politically to ally with Republican war hawks who will accept non-defense spending increases in order to get defense spending increases than with Republican deficit hawks who would take defense cuts if it means non-defense cuts.)

So I’m not sure what the unspecified “waste” you’re talking about is, but if you think that President Obama has actually cut defense spending, you’re falling for Republican hawk (and possibly Administration) rhetoric that just isn’t true.

Though you are correct that he recently raised Defense spending, in overall numbers since 2009, Obama did cut Defense spending. As of December 2015, he cut defense spending from 4.6% of GDP to 3.3% of GDP

But, the objective here is not to defend all of Obama’s policy. The main objective is to point out that he gets grossly inadequate support from the GOP Congress on building Rapid Transit & HSR and repairing Highway infrastructure. If they worked with him like Congress has worked with past presidents, it can be done without raising taxes by reallocating a portion of Defense cut savings to Surface Transportation. The good domestic jobs created and business productivity improvements will generate/increase general tax revenue that will help pay the National Debt.

It was a rude and unhelpful reply. I’m sorry.

I’d like to see the ethanol subsidies cut. It’s ridiculous to plow up fields of milkweed that feed Monarch butterflies to grow corn that is made into a subsidized fuel for gas tanks. There’s more than a few Billion to be saved right there. I’m with Sen Rand Paul on that issue!

We also waste huge amounts of money locking up non-violent drug offenders. Never mind how it hurts those who are incarcerated. It costs something like $40,000 a year to lock up somebody. I know that helps provide employment for cops and prison guards, and makes a profit for private prison operators. But it also means that every inmate is prevented from working, paying taxes, and helping to support his family. So I don’t need it, don’t want it, and hate to see my tax dollars wasted for such a useless thing.

On a different topic, more closely related to the article, some of the transit projects are a no-brainer. Such as:

-LA Westside Subway Extension

-Maryland Purple Line

-Seattle LINK LRT North Extension

These projects will provide more connectivity with existing transit, reduce congestion a little bit, and spur more TOD. Of these three, the LA Westside Subway is most important (and that’s coming from a DC area resident, who would normally want the MD Purple Line as top priority), and will provide a catalyst for transportation change and TOD found, out of these projects, nowhere else in the US.

We shouldn’t have to prioritize the Top 20 Rapid Transit projects, including the Red Line in Baltimore that should not have been cancelled. We have been under-investing in Rapid Transit since 1982.

Leave a Reply