The Tortured Logic of the Heritage Foundation on Public Transportation

A public transit bus is seen.

The Heritage Foundation, never content to promote just one bad idea, has put together something they are calling “The Budget Book: 106 Ways to Reduce the Size and Scope of Government.” Item number 67 on the list calls for eliminating the Federal Transit Administration, or FTA, along with all federal funding for public transportation capital and operating assistance.

This isn’t the first time that conservatives have tried to end federal funding for public transportation. In 2012, the House Republican leadership attempted to pass a surface transportation authorization bill that would have replaced dedicated funding for transit with a one-time, short-term infusion of general fund money. Following a groundswell of popular opposition to this proposal, the leadership was forced to pull the bill and advance a version that maintained dedicated funding for transit programs.

While eliminating federal transit funding remains a terrible policy choice, two factors increase the chances that this option will gain renewed traction. First, the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, recently updated its Highway Trust Fund, or HTF, solvency estimate with a projection that the fund will run a 10-year cumulative deficit of $168 billion and could face insolvency as early as this May. Second, following the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans enjoy control of the Senate and an even larger majority in the House.

In short, conditions are very similar to those in 2012, which provided the impetus for the last failed attempt to eliminate transit funding in favor of highways. It is therefore important to correct the false assertions and poor logic of the Heritage Foundation before they take root in politically fertile soil. Below are some of the false claims made by Heritage, followed by empirically based responses.

Heritage claim #1: “The reasons for funding transit were to offer mobility to low-income citizens in metropolitan areas, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars, and relieve traffic congestion. Yet transit has failed in all of these areas despite billions of dollars in subsidies over the past few decades.”

The reality: Heritage claims that transit funding has failed in all three areas: low-income mobility, pollution, and congestion. This is demonstrably false. First, public transportation offers essential mobility to millions of low-income residents, providing crucial access to jobs, education, and health care, among other services. A 2007 national survey by the American Public Transportation Association found that 35 percent of all transit riders had household incomes that were approximately half the national median household income. Sixty-five percent of riders reported incomes of less than $49,999 (in 2004 dollars), which was slightly higher than the median income at the time. Transit more than fulfills its goal of providing essential mobility to low-income and working families.

Second, research by the Federal Transit Administration estimates that each year, public transportation reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 37 million metric tons. On average, a light-duty vehicle—meaning car, light truck, or sport utility vehicle—emits 0.96 tons of carbon dioxide, or CO2, per passenger mile compared with just 0.45 tons per passenger mile for public transportation vehicles. In addition, compact residential and commercial development built around transit service—often referred to as transit-oriented development—reduces the number of daily vehicle trips by 20 percent to 40 percent compared with the U.S. average. Texas A&M University estimates that transit saves more than 450 million gallons of fuel each year.

Third, transit succeeds in reducing congestion, providing substantial benefit to drivers. Research by Texas A&M University found that removing transit service in just the top 10 metro regions would add 677 million hours of additional roadway delay each year. Contrary to Heritage’s claim, transit succeeds in all three areas by providing essential mobility, reducing pollution and CO2 emissions, and lowering highway congestion levels for drivers.

Heritage claim #2: “Transit is inherently local, not national, in nature, and it would be more appropriately funded at the local or regional level.”

The reality: For Heritage, only activities that are purely interstate in nature are a legitimate activity for the federal government to fund. This claim implies that highway travel is inherently interstate and, therefore, a proper recipient of federal support. As a critique, this falls woefully short. Aside from the fact that the federal government funds many legitimate activities that are inherently local or regional—such as clean drinking water, health care, and community policing—their argument does not work with respect to surface transportation.

The federal-aid highway program provides support for all public roadways functionally classified as anything higher than a rural minor collector or a local road. And while interstate highways tend to receive the most policy attention, they represent less than 5 percent of the total federal-aid highway network. The vast majority of the federal-aid network is designed to serve inherently local driving.

Even more importantly, 73 percent of all vehicle trips are less than 9 miles in length. By comparison, the average unlinked transit trip is 5.4 miles in length, which is both comparable to driving and understandable since many transit trips occur within urban areas where residential and commercial destinations are often close together. Furthermore, only 3 percent of vehicle trips are more than 50 miles in length. In short, the federal-aid highway network overwhelmingly serves a local purpose.

Heritage claim #3: “Motorists in Montana or Texas should not have to see the gas tax dollars they send to Washington diverted to buses and subways, when they expect to see it spent on road and bridge improvements.”

The reality: This claim implies that taxpayers in Montana and Texas export their tax dollars for transit projects in distant cities while receiving nothing themselves. This assertion is wrong for two reasons. First, every state receives transit funding each year. In fiscal year 2014, Montana and Texas received $19.4 million and $628 million in transit funding, respectively. States also receive a substantial highway apportionment for road and bridge work. In FY 2014, Montana and Texas received $396 million and $3.3 billion for highway and bridge projects, respectively.

Second, the implication that Montana and Texas are net exporters of transportation funding—that they pay more in federal gas taxes each year than they receive back through federal programs—is untrue. In fact, no state is a net exporter to the Highway Trust Fund. Due to insufficient gas and diesel tax revenue, Congress has had to backfill the HTF since 2008 with a total of $65 billion in general fund revenues to avert insolvency, which provides every state with more funding than they contribute to the HTF each year.

Heritage claim #4: “The federal government has subsidized mass transit since the 1960s, and it began using federal gas tax (user fees) paid by drivers into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), to pay for transit in 1983.”

The reality: All modes of transportation require subsidy, especially highways, given that gas taxes and other user fees often do not provide enough revenue to cover even basic maintenance. In fact, research by the Center for American Progress determined that 48 percent of interstate and other principal arterial highways—highways that carry the most traffic and therefore generate the most in gas tax revenue—fail to cover their long-term maintenance costs. This result is based on an analysis that makes several conservative methodological assumptions—such as a very low annual construction-inflation target of 1 percent and the exclusion of initial right-of-way acquisition and construction costs—that are favorable to highways. If the analysis relied on less conservative assumptions, the share of highways that fail to cover their costs would increase substantially.

Heritage claim #5: “The transit diversion within the HTF marks the largest such diversion [of highway user fees for non-highway purposes].”

The reality: This critique strongly implies that transit riders do not pay gas taxes or contribute in any way to the Highway Trust Fund. In fact, the opposite is true: Survey research shows that the vast majority of transit riders live in households with a car and pay gas taxes into the HTF. Specifically, 82 percent of transit riders live in a household with a car, and of those, 87 percent use the vehicle more than three times per week. In this way, transit riders contribute gas taxes that support a balanced transportation system that offers multiple options for travel. Federal highway and transit programs ensure that people can effectively match their trip purpose to the most appropriate mode of transportation, as opposed to building a system that forces people to drive.

Unfortunately, none of these facts will likely dissuade the Heritage Foundation from advancing detrimental policy ideas in service of their never-ending quest to “reduce the size and scope of government.” The programs in question are proven successes, and funding reductions would cause predictable harm.

Kevin DeGood is the Director of Infrastructure Policy at the Center for American Progress.