As planners, advocates, and community groups, we can condemn poor localized planning to our heart’s content. Heck, we may even win a few battles now and again. However, if we want to win the war, we must carefully examine how federal policy affects transportation and planning.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the Federal Department of Transportation’s budget for project funding in Fiscal Year 2008. Using completely backward, archaic philosophies, DOT has set aside $42,000,000,000 for highway projects, and a trifling $1,400,000,000 for transit projects. That’s right - $42 billion for highways and $1.4 billion for transit. We can certainly see where DOT’s priorities still lie.

How on earth are we supposed to improve inner city and regional transit, with the feds only dolling out $1.4 billion for transit projects? How are cities supposed to improve sustainability, reduce congestion, and improve mobility? Plus, when you consider all the money going towards highway building/expansion, it makes it even more difficult for transit systems to compete.

“There’s still a lack of understanding how fundamentally broken the transit program is. The demand for transit has never been higher…at the same time, the federal government substantially underfunds transit, so it’s very competitive to get those funds”, says Brookings Institution fellow Robert Puentes.

The Washington Post elaborates:

Unlike federal highway funds, which states receive based on a formula and may spend as they wish, money for new transit projects is awarded at the discretion of the FTA. The agency doesn’t have much to dole out. The FTA has proposed spending about $1.4 billion on new transit projects next fiscal year, compared with $42 billion that states will receive for highway maintenance and construction, according to federal figures. More than 100 transit projects across the country are expected to compete for federal money in coming years, according to a federal report.

In deciding which projects deserve funds, FTA officials consider primarily which would attract enough riders and save them enough time to be worth the investment. They also consider the state and local governments’ ability to help pay for construction, maintenance and operating costs. Other considerations include impact on air quality, development around stations and the ability to move lower-income workers to jobs.

FTA evaluations can take years, because it rates a project — and grants permission for it to move forward — at several different points, controlling it from preliminary engineering through construction.

So there you have it. This is what Miami is up against; this is what America is up against. It goes to show that our federal government is not serious whatsoever about curbing driving demand, pursuing sustainability, or fighting climate change. Until this gross discrepancy is corrected, we cannot expect any appreciable improvement in transit, traffic congestion, or the quality of our urban environments.

How do we fix this? It comes down to politics. We need to help elevate smart growth to the forefront of political issues for subsequent election campaigns. These planning issues are so important, so critical to millions of people, it’s unfathomable that they have not commanded more press time. I mean, after all, smart growth lumps together so many classic issues like the environment, energy, oil (gas prices), climate change, health care, and poverty. The trick will be finding a way to consolidate these issues, which will require a unified effort by leaders of each sub-issue.

Sooner or later it will happen, so let’s do what we can to make it sooner.

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11 Responses to The Federal Government Stacks the Deck Against Transit

  1. Steven says:

    Another interesting issue with transportation in this country was brought up on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR on August 30th. The show discussed the new GPS based system that the FAA is putting in place to handle more air traffic than is currently handled by the current land-based system. Essentially, the number of daily flights severely outnumbers the capacity of our current air traffic system. Additionally, a recent FAA report was released stating that airports do not have enough runways to support the amount of flights being scheduled, leading to increased flight delays.

    Our skies are becoming just as congested as our highways. Several callers to the Diane Rehm show that day suggested expanding our nation’s train networks and exploring new technologies such as bullet trains and maglev as a possible solution. The guests that day, all airplane people, basically said that it will never work out that way.

    Just as we need to create transit to get people off the highways, we also need to create a high speed rail network across this country to relieve our highways and air corridors. The current funding structure for transportation in general in this country is severely flawed and very backwards thinking.


  2. Ryan says:


    That’s an excellent observation you make. Increasing runway capacity is VERY similar to increasing highway capacity, and both cars and planes are extremely destructive to the environment.

    I’m working on a piece right now that addresses this issue, which I think demands a lot more attention.


  3. Pantograph Trolleypole says:

    Hey Ryan, this is very true. You might want to check what California is doing with HSR. The estimate for freeway and runway expansion is 80 billion while the HSR is 40.

    Also stay tuned, I think a transit blog letter writing initiative is in order soon.


  4. Anonymous says:

    I want to write letters to politicos to get more transit.


  5. Tom says:

    This paper is interesting, but I think that a few more facts — starting with correction of a major data error — might be useful.

    Let’s start with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Fiscal Year 2007-2008 (FY08) Budget. Here’s a link to the FTA’s FY08 “Budget Estimate” submission to Congress:

    Now go to (pdf) page 9, “General Statement,” which states, “In FY 2008, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requests $9.42 billion in budget authority …”

    The original posting says that the amount is $1.4 billion — in one spot, “$1,400,000,000.”

    While I cannot be positive what the original poster had in mind, or his/her source, if you check out (pdf) page 12, under “Major Capital Investments,” you find, “FTA requests $1,399.8 million for capital investment grants in FY 2008 …”

    This doesn’t “exactly” match the $1.4 billion, but is so close that it is not unreasonable to ask if the original poster made an error and picked up the wrong value in the posting we now see.

    This FTA grant program is one of three parts of the 49 USC 5309 program. While certainly a major program, it is most certainly NOT the entire Federal transit funding program; actually it appears to be a bit under 15% of the total FTA $9.42 billion budget submittal.

    Now, for the FHWA budget — here’s the link to the summary page of the submission:

    Scroll down to “Summary of FY 2008 Budget Request,” and we have, “The FHWA’s FY 2008 budget includes total budgetary resources of $40.3 billion.”

    This is pretty close, but not exactly, the $42 billion for highways shown in the original posting.

    This being the Federal governmental budget, things are nowhere near as simple as I have laid out above. I’m not going to try to quantify all, or even most, of the adjustments that would be necessary to get the total Federal appropriations for transit and roads, but here are two matters with relatively big numbers:

    1. Security — Outside of the FTA funds for transit (which include a relatively small dedication for transit security), there is $3.4 billion for four years of federal funding of transit security, approximately $.65 billion for FY08 and larger amounts in the out years, in a separate authorization program. (IMPORTANT NOTE: This is an AUTHORIZATION Act, NOT an Appropriation Act; the funds still have to be put into the annual budget by Congressional action; however, the likelihood of full appropriation is considered high.) Here is a link to the American Public Transportation Association press release which clearly shows that the FTA budget and the transit security budget are separate:

    2. There are what are known as “flexible funds” in the FHWA budget; with the “Surface Transportation” ($6.050 billion for FY08) and the Congestion mitigation and Air Quality Improvement ($1.640 billion for FY08 — for these values, go the FHWA budget document above and go to the next page link at the bottom of the page I provided the URL to) programs being the most important. These funds are allocated by formula to state and local governments and the recipient organizations have the option, a decision that almost entire that of the local agency, to use their STP and CMAQ funds for non-road purposes, including transit projects. In fact, there is substantial transit project funding from STP and CMAQ funds every year.

    The original posting shows a Roads:Transit Federal funding ratio of $42 billion:$1.4 billion, or 30:1.

    Let’s start with the $40.3 billion for FHWA and the $9.42 billion for FTA from the agency budget documents above and then make the following adjustments:

    1. Add $.65 billion for transit for transit security.
    2. Shift $1.00 billion from FHWA to FTA for CMAQ, STP, and other “FTA” programs funded by “FHWA” funds. (For this one, I’m doing an approximationn based on data from a General Accountability Agency report, which you can find at:
    In the cover letter, you can see that, for the Fiscal Years 1992-2006, 13% of the total flexible funds were spent on transit projects. If we add the STP and CMAQ funds for FY08, ignore the other flexible funds [which are small in comparison to these two], we get $7.69 billion in total flexible funds, and 13% of that is $1.00 billion.)

    This produces $39.3 billion for roads and $11.07 billion for transit, or a ratio of 3.55:1 in favor of roads. To put it another way, the original posting showed transit getting 3.23% of total roads and transit funding, my calculation shows it getting 21.97%. (I believe that a more detailed analysis would show the transit percentage somewhat higher than this value, but not so much as to make any significant difference.)

    I don’t think I need to say much more than these are very different results.

    OK, now let us see where the money spent on roads and transit comes from. I believe that all, or almost all, of the FHWA funding comes from user fees, most significantly out of the $.184 per gallon Federal charge on each gallon of road fuel. Therefore, the Federal road “subsidy” program is entirely self-supporting (although we are reaching the point where the trust funds are being spent down quickly, that is a matter for a separate discussion).

    The FTA budget is funded primarily out of the same $.184 per gallon charge — specifically, $.0286, or about 15-16% of the total, is earmarked for the transit “pot” in the highway trust fund, not including the “highway” money that is transfered to transit through STP, CMAQ, et al. There are also “general fund” monies going to the FTA budget, and the transit security funds also come out of “general funds.”

    So, the Federal roads spending is paid for entirely, or almost entirely, by the fees paid by the road users, and the same road users also pay the majority of the Federal funding for transit.

    There is NO Federal tax, user charge, or other collection of funds from transit agencies, transit service providers, or transit riders (other than economy-wide charges, such as payroll and income taxes); almost no transit agencies even pay the cents-per-gallon charge to the Fed’s.

    Now, above, I showed that transit gets about 22% of total Federal roads + transit spending. To determine what is the “right” level, we need to see what the transportation consumption in the U.S.

    Going to the U.S. DOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Pocket Guide to Transportation 2007,”
    table 4-4, we see that two-axle cars and other vehicles and motorcycles were used for a total of 4,465.2 billion passenger miles in 2004, the most currently available data.
    Unfortunately, this table does not separate out transit road use, combining the transit usage with intercity, other commerical, and school bus uses. Going to the FTA’s National Transit Database, Table 19
    (, the total transit passenger miles for 2004 were 46.5 billion — or approximately 1.0% of the total road and transit passenger miles. (By the way, 44% of the transit passenger-miles, and 60% were by rubber tire transit modes, which means that they were traveled on the roads.)

    Besides human travel, roads are also utilized for transportation of goods. Going to table 4-5 of the “Pocket Guide”, 28.7% of total ton-miles of freight were moved by truck in 2004, second only to railroads, at 36.8%. Of course, for the vast majority of goods that use other modes, trucks are commonly used at one or both ends of the trip to hook up with the other mode(s) (the obvious exceptions are things like coal unit trains and pipeline movements of oil and gas). Because modes like rail, ship and barge, and pipelines tend to be used more for shipments of heavy, bulky, low-dollar-value, non-time critical commodities, a strong argument can be made that the importance of truck freight movements on roads to the American economy is significantly larger than the 28.7% ton-mile share. It is not really feasible to try to determine the relative importance of roads between passenger and goods movement, other than to say that roads are absolutely essential for both and both uses are major users of roads.

    (As a practical matter, ton-miles of freight movements on transit are inconsequential.)

    Another way to look at transit usage is “home to work travel.” Going to the U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey home-to-work table for 2005
    (, we see 4.65% of respondents using transit for their home-to-work travel. (The American Public Transportation Association, “2007 Public Transportation Fact Book,” Figure 2, “Trip Purpose of Transit Passengers,” shows 59.2% of trips are “work” trips, which indicates that transit usage for non-work trips is lower than the usage for work trips.)

    I am not going to opine on the Federal share of funding for transit being too low, too high, or too anything. I have opinions on this, but I’ll save them for another day. My point today is, in considering such issues, I believe that it is very important to use relevant — and accurate data.

    Specifically, the transit share of total Federal funding on roads and transit is NOT the 3.23% from the original posting, but approximately 22%.

    Further, not only is virtually all Federal funding of roads paid for by road user fees, but the same road user charges (technically, the fuel charges that go for transit are taxes, as they are charges by government that do not go to support the activity that the charge is collected for) pay for the majority of the Federal funding of transit.

    Transit accounts for approximately 1% of total road+transit passenger miles, approximately 4.65% of home-to-work trips and a far lower portion of other trips, and essentially none of the freight movements in this nation, with roads handling the vast majority of the rest. (There are those who work at home, walk to work, etc., and the statistics are the transit + roads totals, not considering items such as airline flights and railroad freight traffic.)

    Any questions, please feel free to e-mail me.

    Tom Rubin


  6. socialscientist says:


    we are attempting to make the case.


  7. Anonymous says:

    Yes. Email Tom Rubin. His best friends in the whole world are Wendell Cox and RandalL O’Toole. He can be your friend too! And if you’re lucky, you can share one of those midnight freight trips with him. …snark…


  8. Andrew Dawson says:

    Despite what Tom Rubin wrote, the deck is loaded!

    Just look at how much railroad track has been riped up over the past 100 years. Hey we don’t run our road system on a profit or loss basis!

    The highway lobby(or highwaymen, bushmen, etc) are so addicted to pork, they can’t stop trying to control the system and peoples lives.

    Take care, Andrew Dawson


  9. Anonymous says:

    First of all, Tom Rubin is connected to the Reason Foundation, one of the leading pro-sprawl lobbies. In a very calculated way, Reason has tried to make it look like Rubin has extensive experience advising transit authorities all over the country, implying that he must be an expert on transit, transportation policy, and transportation planning.

    But Rubin is an accountant and a businessman, NOT AN URBAN PLANNER. Financial Planning or Capital Planning is entirely different from URBAN PLANNING. Just because someone works in a laboratory doesn’t automatically make them a scientist. The same goes here; just because someone (e.g. Rubin) has worked as a “consultant for the transit industry”, doesn’t mean he knows jack about transportation planning. He’s helped transit-related groups with treasury, accounting, and budgetary functions, and now the Reason Foundation is using him for as a “transit expert” who will do things like write anti-transit critiques (which the Reason will cite in a pro-sprawl “study”) and comment on urban planning blogs to try and sew doubt (not win the argument, just cast doubt among readers… that’s the strategy) about smart growth policies.

    See for yourself (

    That’s exactly what he is trying to do right here. Using classic pro-sprawl lobby strategies, he’s manipulating complex numbers that most people either won’t understand, or won’t bother to research, to try and cast doubt about the inherent superiority of smart growth over sprawl (i.e. transit-oriented growth vs. highway-based growth). He knows the numbers are already so massively skewed in favor of road-spending, which is why he’s not arguing there is a discrepancy. However, he’s trying to narrow the funding gap, while at the same time use buzz words and phrases from the Reason Foundation Rolodex of Spin, to imply that transit is a huge waste of taxpayer money and anti-American Dream.

    I could go on all day, but it’s not worth it because these guys are even more ridiculous than the global warming doubters. They are desperate to make headways into mainstream urban planning theory, but find themselves more alienated everyday.

    Good luck Tom Rubin, Wendell Cox, Randall O’Toole, Joel Kotkin, and the other folks out there trying to swindle Americans so the oil companies, automobile industry, construction industry, and other pro-sprawl groups can profit at our behest.


  10. socialscientist says:

    Why question credentials? An idea is right or wrong. The oil/auto/coal oligarchy is pumping carbon dioxide into the air for free. It is that simple. If you don’t correct that, then the input numbers to all planning whether urban or financial are skewed. Hence the plans are wrong.


  11. Anonymous says:

    Tom Rubin:

    I thought I’d check back to see what the reactions might me. I see three postings that are clearly responding to my posting — and I sincerely thank Mr. Dawson for having enough pride in what he is saying to actually attach his name.

    I am disappointed. The original posting, by Ryan, was basically an opinion — that the deck was stacked against transit — built upon a factual basis that the percentage of Federal road+transit funding that went to transit was 3.3% (my calculation from data presented in the original).

    My posting was showed that the actual percentage was NOT 3.3%, but approximately 22%. I carefully presented my sources and detail data, even URL’s, and then showed where I believed that the original author made his mistake (by erroneously using the dollar value of one Federal transit funding program, that for “new starts,” as the entire Federal transit program).

    I then posted additional data to put this 22% transit percentage in context:

    1. The Federal highway/road funding comes completely from road user charges, while none of the transit funding comes from transit user changes — in fact, most comes from ROAD user charges.
    2. Transit is only 1% of total people-miles of travel in the U.S. on roads+transit and zero percent of freight travel.

    No response questioned my data, nor my analysis thereof, nor offered any other data in response.

    Instead, there are ad hominem attacks of the “we don’t like the people he hangs out with” and the “he is not one of us, not an urban planner, he is an accountant and a businessman” variety.

    Is that all you’ve got?

    I can clearly see that these people don’t like my data, but can’t anyone actually put together some data and analysis thereof to rebut it — on some basis other than, “we don’t care what the real data is, we are not interested in what you present, we know what is right and that is the end of the discussion?”

    By the way, if you reread what I posted, I DIDN’T make any recommendations as to what the Federal funding split should be between roads and transit, I just posted data that showed the original factual basis for claiming a bias in favor of roads was massively incorrect and then presented additional data to attempt to provide context. Evidently, some people aren’t interested in responding to what is presented to them, they just want to dump on the person who presents data they don’t like because the data doesn’t agree with the world as they would like to see it.

    If you want to be taken seriously outside your own little group of like-minded people, I suggest that you might want to improve your methodologies for presenting your positions.

    If you want to discuss transportation and land use on a foundations of facts and analysis, and logic based thereon, let me know.

    If your idea of rational discussion of differences in an attempt to reach consensus is name-calling, I have no interest in participating.


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