National, Randal O'Toole, Transportation

More deficit spending in federal surface transportation bill

Congress recently passed the 1,301-page Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. The Act represents, for the most part, a five-year extension of existing highway and transit programs with several steps backwards.

Previously self-funded out of dedicated gasoline taxes and other highway user fees, surface transportation programs has over the last several decades become increasingly dependent on deficit spending.

If anything, deficit spending will increase under the FAST Act, which will spend $305 billion ($61 billion a year) over the next five years. Highway revenues, which were $39.4 billion in fiscal year 2015, are not likely to be much more than $40 billion a year over the next five years, so the new law incurs deficits of about $20 billion a year. The law includes $70 billion in “offsets”–funding sources that could otherwise be applied to reducing some other deficit–which won’t be enough to keep the program going for the entire five years.

When Congress created the Interstate Highway System in 1956, all federal money was distributed to the states using formulas. But in 1991 Congress created a number of competitive grant programs, supposedly so the money would be spent where it was most needed.

icon_op_edIn fact, research by the Cato Institute and Reason Foundation showed that Congress and the administration tended to spend the money either in the districts represented by the most powerful members of Congress or where the administration thought it would get the greatest political return for its party.

The 2012 surface transportation law contained no earmarks and turned all but two major competitive grant programs into formula funds, thus taking the politics out of most transportation funding. The FAST Act goes backwards, putting more money into political grants than ever before.

The law creates a new fund of $4.5 billion over five years for “Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects.” This will lead state transportation departments to go out of their way to define projects as “freight” projects so that they can be eligible for the fund.

Some of the projects will no doubt be worthwhile, but experience suggests that many will be frivolous.

The law also converts part of the Bus & Bus Facilities Fund from a formula fund into a competitive grant program. The $300 million per year on competitive grants will encourage cities to build massive bus terminals that do little to increase mobility.

The FAST Act increases funding for the New Starts transit capital grants program from just under $2 billion per year to $2.3 billion per year. This is probably the most pernicious grant program as it has given transit agencies incentives to propose the most expensive forms of transit–light rail, subways, and commuter trains–so they can get the most federal dollars.

A subset of New Starts money is dedicated to “small starts,” including streetcars and bus-rapid transit projects. Streetcars may be the most ridiculous form of transit as they are slow, far more expensive than buses, and with far lower capacities: a single streetcar line can only move about a fifth as many people per hour as buses on city streets.

The FAST Act increases federal funding for streetcar and other small starts projects from $75 million to $100 million per project.

Finally, the FAST Act broadens the use of Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) funds to include a much wider range of activities.

TIFIA is supposed to be a competitive loan program, allowing state and local governments to borrow money to fund high-priority projects and repay those funds at low interest rates out of local taxes and revenues. The FAST Act, allows the use of TIFIA funds for, among other things, transit-oriented real-estate developments that have nothing to do with improving mobility.

Although the FAST Act is a five-year bill, Congress will start to run out of money to pay for it in about three years. Shortly before that time, expect the drumbeats to begin about the phony infrastructure crisis.

In fact, it is federal funding itself that is responsible for the infrastructure problems we have because earmarks, competitive grant programs, and other political distributions of funds have focused on building new, often unnecessary, projects rather than maintaining the infrastructure we have.

Fiscal conservatives in Congress who understand this played virtually no role in the writing of the FAST Act. Now they have five years to put together an alternative program of funding transportation without deficits and figuring out a strategy for passing that program through Congress in 2020.

Randal O’Toole directs the Transportation Policy Center at the Independence Institute, a fee market think tank in Denver.  A longer version of this piece appeared in his blog, The Antiplanner.


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