Transportation Funding

November 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Image courtesy of Atwater Village Newbie

I was recently reading the Heritage Foundation’s website after watching last night’s presidential candidate debate. I came across their issue report on federal highway funding (from 2010). I can’t agree with most of their stance. I’ll outline my argument:

Heritage Foundation says: The rest of these funds [35% of the federal gasoline tax of 18.3¢ per gallon] are diverted to unrelated purposes, including mass transit, national parks and forests, bicycle trails, earmarks, bureaucracy, urban revitalization, and historic preservation. As a result, congestion has worsened in most major metropolitan areas, and roads and bridges have deteriorated everywhere.

Their premise purports to be that by diverting money away from highway/road spending, traffic congestion worsens and infrastructure deteriorates. This is not true. This presentation from l’École d’Economie de Paris references a 1992 study that shows the amount of vehicle kilometers traveled (VKT) increases proportionally with the amount of roadway. That’s to say, the more roads you have, the more people will use them.

Why? Think about it: if you know a roadway is congested, you might not use it as much. You may decide that a trip on a congested road is not worth it, or only worth it in certain cases. Without this congestion, you may make more trips. You’re also not the only person who thinks this way. Thousands, even millions of people think this way. Congestion can be a good thing.

This congestion is also a reason why people in major metropolitan areas decide to use public transportation, which is partially funded by the gasoline tax. If everyone in Chicago and its suburbs decided to drive to work, a great portion of people would never actually make it to work on time.

I’ll put something else in perspective: the space an automobile takes up. I won’t even get in to how much space the infrastructure to accomodate automobiles consumes. The average car is around 15 feet, give or take. A 3200-series rail car on the Chicago ‘L’ is 48 feet, and a train of 8 cars is therefore 384 feet long. Using very rough math, this means about 25 cars can fit in the same space as an ‘L’ train. There are 39 seats per rail car on the ‘L’, meaning that even if everyone were offered a (somewhat) comfortable seat (as is not often the case during rush hour with people standing), the amount of people moved by an ‘L’ train is about 12 times greater than that of solo drivers. Even if all 25 cars were full of carpooling adults (5 people per car), the ‘L’ train still carries 2.5 times more people.

Put simply, public transportation moves a lot more people, and it does it on one track. There is no way the Heritage Foundation can correctly assert that congestion has worsened because of public transportation funding.

More than 20% of trust fund spending (and motorist fuel taxes) goes to transit systems which serve only 5% of the nation’s passengers, three-quarters of whom are located in just seven metropolitan areas.

Whether or not this is true is insignificant. The amount of money spent on transit systems affects the people that are driving on the roadways in the metropolitan areas. Without transit systems, many more cars would be driving on the roadways. The amount of money saved directly (by spending less on costly road infrastructure) and indirectly (in time spent in congestion) is most likely vastly greater than the 20% that is spent on these transit systems.

I’ll go back to the topic of public transit’s efficiency: by moving more people in less space, infrastructure costs go down. Roadways and railways alike must be upgraded for changes in technology as well as maintenance. However, given that many rail transit systems operate (in two directions) on two or four tracks, the maintenance costs of railways ends up being far less than that of roadways.

End All Diversions to Non-Road Uses. Federal fuel tax revenues paid as a user fee by motorists and truckers should not be diverted to programs that do not benefit road users.

Again, diverting this funding to non-road users helps everyone in the end, even those still using the road. Traffic congestion would be far worse if all funding was eliminated from public transit. Spending more money on roads, especially making them wider, only makes driving more attractive.

Nothing that the Heritage Foundation has outlined in their report is good for drivers or public transit users. The majority of Americans benefit from a diversion of the gas tax.