Voxplaining Pew Charts on Highway Funding and Ignoring Transit’s Decline

Over at Vox.com, former WaPo blogger Brad Plumer wrote a post about highway funding, largely relying on the good folks over at the Pew Charitable Trusts, who published this analysis of transportation funding and financing yesterday. The numbers are sound. There are major funding challenges facing the federal transportation programs. We can all agree on that. But Plumer ignores a couple of key facts that might color his narrative a bit differently. He writes:

Ever since the Reagan administration, roughly four-fifths of federal transportation spending has gone toward highways, while one-fifth has been specifically set aside for mass transit projects.

In recent years, some Republicans have pushed to eliminate the fixed share of federal money for transit, arguing that local bus and subway projects should be financed by user fees rather than federal gasoline taxes. These challenges have been unsuccessful so far, though, and mass transit has maintained its dedicated funding stream.


For decades, federal highway spending was largely financed by the Highway Trust Fund, paid for by federal gas taxes. The idea was that roads and highways would be paid for by the people actually using them. But this is no longer the case.

As the first column shows, the federal gas tax only covered about 72 percent of all federal highway spending in 2011. Congress had to scrounge up the rest from the general fund. Indeed, every single state now receives more in federal highway money than it pays in federal gas taxes — with some states receiving significantly more.

Yes, the Highway Trust Fund is overextended and we should be moving to true user revenue collection (all-electronic tolling and mileage-based user fees). To President Obama’s credit, his latest DOA highway bill proposes to end the federal prohibition on states tolling their own Interstate segments, something we at CEI have long supported.

But what about mass transit, which Plumer does note receives one-fifth of Highway Trust Fund disbursements? Since President Reagan signed the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 into law, which created the Mass Transit Account within the Highway Trust Fund, mass transit’s modal share has actually declined to around 5 percent (that’s over 20 percent of funding for just 5 percent of the transportation market, with virtually all the revenue being collected from drivers).

Here’s the table Plumer should have included along with his six Pew charts, from AASHTO’s Commuting in America 2013: The National Report on Commuting Patterns and Trends, coauthored by venerable transportation guru Alan Pisarski and South Florida University Professor Steve Polzin:


Transit boosters are prone to making inaccurate or misleading claims. One is that transit is seeing something of a revival, as was recently claimed by the American Public Transportation Association and parroted by gullible reporters. Many transportation policy experts refuted these deeply misleading claims, including three respected urban planning professors in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

Despite diverting more than one-fifth of all highway funding to mass transit, public transportation has been flat-lining for decades. Despite dumping billions into transit projects in flyover country, about 40 percent of all U.S. transit trips still take place in the New York City metropolitan area.

Another claim made by transit boosters is that we need more cost-inefficient projects such as light-rail networks to alleviate congestion. Many Americans fall for this trap, their thinking apparently being that if we build more expensive transit systems, their neighbors will get off the highway and take the train. The problem is that there is very little actual evidence to support the claim that U.S. transit investments have helped ease the pain of congestion. The only known solution to congestion: adding lane miles and pricing road use.Transit energy per PM now exceeds passenger cars

Finally, there’s the claim that transit is good for the environment because cars are energy inefficient. This might be true for some types of transit if ridership is at capacity. But based on actual average ridership levels (those empty buses you see off-peak are not anomalous!), bus transit actually has a greater energy intensity than automobiles on a passenger-mile basis, according to the Department of Energy. As the DOE’s table shows, energy intensities of bus transit and personal automobiles have flipped since 1970, largely due to declining transit ridership and more energy efficient automobiles.

So, there you have it. Transit continues to siphon off revenue collected from drivers without producing any of the results claimed by transit boosters. Without mentioning these facts, you’re not doing a good job at explaining transportation funding and policy in the United States. You’re welcome, Vox.


Brad Plumer has since updated his article to reflect “why there was conservative [sic, most of us free-market transportation folks are libertarians] opposition to transit funding,” citing this post.