Bush Admin Wants to Rob Transit to Pay for Highways

Construction projects like these additions to San Antonio’s I-410 may stop short without an infusion of cash.

On Wednesday, Mobilizing the Region called attention to the Bush Administration’s proposed 2009 transportation budget. While New York City stands to get welcome earmarks for projects like the Second Avenue Subway, the big picture is more sobering. The administration wants to transfer billions of dollars from transit to highways:

It proposes to shore up the Highway Account of the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) by “borrowing” $3.2 billion from the HTF’s Mass Transit Account. It would also cut national transit spending by more than $200 million from previously proposed levels.

What’s going on here? I’ll do my best to make it interesting.

The Highway Trust Fund has two components: By law, 18.2 percent is set aside for transit, and the rest for
highways. Problem is, the highway people have been spending down their part of the fund at an unsustainable clip, and they are on pace to run out of cash around October. If that happens, they will have to stop jobs — cutting off exactly the kind of big-ticket construction projects that legislators love.

"That’s going to be very unsavory from a political standpoint," says David Burwell, a DC-based transportation policy expert. "So they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul."

The administration looks at the Transit Fund, which still has several billion left in the piggy bank, and sees a quick fix to postpone facing a long-term problem head-on. But raiding the Transit Fund would drop it, too, into the red within two years. In a letter of opposition, Maria Zimmerman of the national transit advocacy group Reconnecting America warns of this scenario:

Bush’s FY09 budget proposal would further push the cost and obligation of maintaining the multi-trillion dollar transportation system — one of this nation’s greatest assets — onto the backs of state and local governments.

Now the good news: The gambit is unlikely to succeed.

"The people on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are going to scream bloody murder," says Burwell. "It’s a violation of the spending structure established by ISTEA."

The most logical way to make up the shortfall, he believes, is to bump up the gas tax, but of course that’s politically unpopular too. A more likely scenario will be a stop-gap measure like taking money from the general fund (which bumps up the federal deficit) or cracking down on gasoline wholesalers who cheat on gas tax payments (apparently this is a widely known problem that has gone largely unaddressed for some time).

In the not-too-distant future, more drastic measures will be necessary. The attempt to raid the Transit Fund is symptomatic of the same unsustainable financial situation that has caused the idea of privatizing highways to gain so much traction.

Burwell, an early champion of "context-sensitive" approaches to transportation projects, thinks privatization skirts the issue. "The solution is to figure out how to re-finance the Trust Fund and do it in a way that addresses public goals like reducing VMT and emissions."

The current authorization for the Highway Trust Fund expires on September 30, 2009, nine months after the new president takes office. The next authorization law will likely involve a commitment in the range of $300 to $350 billion over the next five years. Wouldn’t it be great to hear the candidates weigh in on how that money should be spent?

Photo: Kaptain Krispy Kreme/Flickr