Rail advocates often call me “anti-transit,” probably because it is easier to call people names than to answer rational arguments. I’ve always responded that I’m just against wasteful transit. But looking at the finances and ridership of transit systems around the country, it’s hard not to conclude that all government transit is wasteful transit.
Most politicians are optimistic about the government’s ability to intervene and solve problems. That’s one reason why they run for office. Neocons, for example, have excessive faith that foreign intervention can fix the world, while liberals embrace the misguided idea that subsidies and regulations can boost the economy.
Congress faces gridlock on many issues until after the November elections, but a transportation bill is still high on the agenda, because the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) will soon run out of money after years of elevated spending. Congress will probably put a bandage on the HTF to get it through this year, but eventually it will have to choose between tax increases and spending cuts.
The federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is running out of money. Congress will likely pass a short-term fix for the program in coming weeks. Over the longer term, many policymakers favor raising taxes to close the $14 billion annual gap between HTF spending and revenues.
An implicit principle in a democracy is that the officials who decide how your taxes are spent represent you, the taxpayers, and not the bureaucracies that receive your taxes. But Congress violated this principle when it wrote MAP-21, the 2012 transportation law. As detailed in a proposed rule earlier this month, the law gives transit agencies in major urban areas a vote on how much of each region’s transportation dollars are spent on transit.
The Highway Trust Fund will be out of money in a few months, mainly because Congress insists on spending more than it takes in. To avert this supposed crisis, Republican leaders are proposing to cut Saturday deliveries of mail and use the savings to replenish the trust fund.
If you are interested in financial markets, Cato has an interesting forum tomorrow on bank runs. But if you are more interested in highways and spending, you can catch me at this Heritage forum tomorrow on the Hill.
Infrastructure is in the news as policymakers face a deadline to pass a new highway bill. President Obama visited the Tappan Zee Bridge yesterday and said that “rebuilding America … shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” and then cast blame on the Republicans.
Congress is currently debating options to solve the “transportation cliff.” Broadly, the federal government spends more on highways and transit than it collects in fuel tax revenue, which has depleted the Highway Trust Fund. One reason for the imbalance is the federal government’s inability to control costs on projects. Federal transportation projects frequently go over budget.
Recent news reports have zeroed in on Washington’s next “cliff,” the “transportation cliff” that is expected to happen when the federal Highway Trust Fund runs out of money sometime this summer. Most of those articles have a hidden agenda: to increase spending for transit even though transit now gets 20 percent of federal surface transport dollars but carries little more than 1 percent of the travel carried by automobiles (about 55 billion passenger miles by transit vs. 4.3 trillion passenger miles in cars and light trucks). This post will explain some of the politics of the transportation cliff.