Stuck in the Sand

National Transportation Policy At Odds With National Security

August 31, 2005

Stuck in the Sand: Recommendations

In 1991, Congress passed a totally new transportation bill known as ISTEA, or the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act. ISTEA for the first time established an 80/20 split in federal support for highways and transit. For the previous 40 years, federal spending for highways over transit had been even more lopsided. According to one estimate, 75 percent of federal transportation funding in the post-World War II generation went to highways while only 1 percent flowed to transit (Jackson 1985). It is little wonder that cities that grew up during that time are the most dependent on Middle East oil.

To reverse course, equally massive investments in diversified transit systems with emphasis on rail are required. Experience shows that these investments will work.

Where metro areas have spent money on rail transit, ridership has exceeded estimates, even in cities like Dallas-Fort Worth, Salt Lake City and Denver, where rail systems had to be force-fit on top of highway oriented development patterns (Baird 2004, Van Eyck 2004, Reed 2005). To be sure, these cities still have limited transit options compared to roads. But the ridership trends suggest that a substantial portion of the population is eager for alternatives to driving — alternatives that could help to reduce Middle East oil consumption.

People everywhere appear ready for alternatives to driving. Denver residents, for example, voted overwhelmingly last year for a $4.7 billion, 119-mile expansion of the area's passenger rail system. Transit managers in Montgomery, Alabama; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Seattle have recently reported increases in ridership that may reflect concern over high gasoline prices (Thomas 2005, Nelesen 2005, Hummel 2005, Gaudette 2005).

Congress recently passed a $286.5 billion federal transportation bill that will fund transportation projects for the next six years. However, states have an important role to play in how this money is spent. In the coming years, states should:

In the future, the federal government should:

  1. Increase use of flexible federal funds for transit. Federal transportation rules allow states to spend a significant portion of their highway funds on transit projects but so far, most states have barely exercised this option (Puentes and Bailey 2003).
  2. End discriminatory state funding rules that prevent state gas tax dollars from being spent on transit projects. The Brookings Institution found in a 2003 report that 30 states had such rules. Investing gas taxes in transit makes sense because increased transit ridership eases congestion for drivers (Puentes and Bailey 2003).
  3. Ensure that transportation funding is equitable within states. When it comes to both federal and state funds, research shows that transportation dollars are spent disproportionately on outlying areas rather than on metro areas where most people live and pay taxes. Ensuring that metro areas get their fair share of funds is an important step toward alleviating the worst traffic problems and ensuring that local authorities can build energy-efficient transit systems (EWG 2004, Hill et al. 2003).
  4. Fund transit at the same level as highways, with an emphasis on rail. The current federal funding split of about 80 percent for highways and less than 19 percent for transit helps lock the nation into dependence on Middle East oil. Our goal should be a funding split of 50 on percent highways and 50 percent on energy-efficient transit, with an emphasis on rail. Not only does rail provide a direct benefit for those who use it, but it also frees up road space for drivers.

    Heritage Foundation founder Paul Weyrich and coauthor William Lind wrote in a recent analysis that a particular advantage of rail transportation is that communities can develop around it. "A rail line, in contrast [to a bus line], is a fixed, high-value asset," they write. "A developer can invest in, say, a new office building near a rail transit line in confidence that twenty years from now, the rail line will still be there providing transit service...In one city after another, rail transit — Heavy Rail, Light Rail or commuter rail — has brought increased investment, higher property values, higher rents and more customers" (Weyrich and Lind 2001).
  5. Put transit on an equal playing field when it comes to federal transportation rules. The current system favors road projects over transit by requiring builders to jump through a series of additional hoops before a transit project can get off the ground (Beimborn and Puentes 2003).