Want to Increase Infrastructure Money for Highways Immediately by 31%? Stop Diverting Highway Money to Transit

This DOT table, pointed out to me by Randal O'Toole, shows that money spent on highways could be increased immediately by over 30% if highway money was not diverted to transit and other uses.  About 13% of state gas tax revenues meant for highways are diverted to non-highway transit projects (e.g. light rail boondoggles).  Another 9.4% are diverted to general funds, and may not be applied to transportation projects at all.   The same table shows that if all state MVD receipts were used to support investments for cars rather than transit and general spending, money available for roads would increase 45% from those funds.

Transit projects should be supported by their own riders.  This will never happen, because they are so egregiously expensive per passenger-mile that no one would ride them if their trip were not subsidized by the rest of us**.  And I am exhausted with having folks argue that highways are "subsidized" because they require tax money beyond the gas taxes (which are essentially a user fee) when these extra tax monies for highways would be largely unneeded if the highway funds were used for highways.  The diversion to general funds is particularly troubling, since sleazy government officials are obviously trying to piggy-back off the popularity of highway infrastructure investment to generate a slush fund for activities taxpayers are less likely to support.

And please do not tell me that as a highway driver, investments in transit are doing me a favor by getting cars off the road.  Transit investments are so expensive per passenger mile that the same money spent getting a few cars off the road via transit would substantially increase road and highway capacities.  A dollar of highway investment carries at least an order of magnitude more passenger miles than a dollar of transit spending.

** I am always amazed that supporters of such transit projects call light rail projects "sustainable".  Forget for a minute that they seldom use less energy per passenger mile than driving.   Think about all the resources that go into them.  This at first seems like a hard problem -- how do we account for all the resources that go into transit vs. go into driving.  But then we realize it is actually easy, because we have a simple tool for valuing resource inputs:  price.  Prices are a great miracle.  They provide us with a sort of weighted average of the value and scarcity of the resources (both hard, like titanium, and soft, like labor and innovation) that go into a product.  So if light rail costs 10x or more per passenger mile than driving, as it often does, this means that it uses ten times the value of resource inputs as driving.  This is sustainable?  I do not think that word means what you think it means.


  1. Evan Þ.:

    Interesting statistics. However, this isn't the only money government is spending on highways. It might be so at the federal level - I don't know - but at the local level, most local streets are funded by property taxes, which definitely aren't user fees. That's the main argument I've heard for streets being subsidized, and it makes sense to me.

  2. Trey Tomeny:

    In Dallas, the airport light rail is now a housing project. I've seen numerous indigent looking people on the light rail with one just the right size suitcase. If you position the suitcase to span the gap between the forward facing seats and the aisle facing seats, you have a lay flat bed to spend the night. And since you have a suitcase, you can always claim you are going to/from the airport.

    Of course, I am may be just as bad a freeloader as those people. Before the light rail, trips often involved using cheaper than on, off-airport parking, located a ten minute shuttle ride away, and costing around $8 a day. When the light rail opened about 6 months ago, they conveniently put a large free parking lot only 7 minutes away from the terminal. So instead of paying hundreds of dollars to park on a long trip, I pay $2.50 each way to ride, along with a few homeless people and TSA employees, using tens of millions of dollars worth of rolling stock, track, and terminals.

  3. roxpublius:

    As a mass transit rider in the congested northeast, i'm not sure i agree that "the same money spent getting a few cars off the road via transit would substantially increase road and highway capacities"

    Maybe this is true in Phoenix, with theoretically unlimited sprawl, but living in Philadelphia, getting cars off the road has unquestionable value. Our transit agency reports just over 1 million daily riders (http://septa.org/strategic-plan/reports/revenue-ride.pdf) which is likely 500,000 users. Assuming that results in about 300,000 cars off the road. If a third of them are to the west, they would likely be on I-76, which is a two lane highway that really can't be expanded without tearing out neighborhoods or building over the river. There is a non-trivial benefit to having 100,000 cars off of that road on a daily basis. This is completely discounting any environmental benefit.

    Are there other ways to fund transit that make more sense? Would the system be more efficient if it was run with the idea of transporting people as its primary focus instead of primarily being seen as a jobs program for union members? Could riders probably bear a greater portion of the cost? etc. etc. Oh, yeah. But suggesting that there are no disbursed benefits of transit that could go beyond the concentrated costs that each rider might bear if they paid the full cost themselves is also unreasonable.

  4. HenryBowman419:

    The figures are for states only and do not include federal revenue or spending. Some states spend money on local roadways (that is, highways that are not state or Federal highways) and some do not.

  5. mx:

    Simply making the roads bigger is no longer an option in urban and dense suburban areas. Even if you built 16 lane freeways, offramps and city streets can't expand to accommodate that kind of traffic nor can there possibly be enough parking for all the cars at their destinations. It's just not realistic to say we should simply build more and bigger roads and our problems will be solved.

    People have this obsession with the idea that they shouldn't have to pay for any service they don't personally use at a given moment. But highway funds aren't spent dollar-for-dollar on the road you happen to be driving on. Your gas taxes might be going to pay for a bridge clear across the state that you'll never use. But, if the bridge is a good investment and well-planned, we'll all benefit from that bridge because it allows other people, not to mention trucks carrying the goods you buy and sell or the garbage you throw away, to travel. The same goes for transit.

    Finally, the idea behind proposals to increase infrastructure spending isn't about, as you propose, diverting money from one type of infrastructure (transit) to another (highways), but rather increasing the total amount of money spent on infrastructure of all kinds. Over a trillion dollars is required to return national infrastructure to a state of good repair. While we can't afford all that at once and should look to invest the money in the most beneficial projects, simply shifting funds from one type of infrastructure to another doesn't help unless you actually plan to close a large number of entire transit systems.

  6. Sam L.:

    You shouldn't be amazed. The cronyism and graft opportunities abound, according to what I read about Portland.

  7. Mike:

    In Washington the State also charges itself sales tax on highway projects, with revenue going to the general fund.

  8. jdgalt:

    Rail transit projects are as super-expensive as you say above. Bus systems are not -- but in most places they're still a net cost to government because they're effectively a welfare service for people who can't afford a car or can't qualify for a driver's license.

    It would be nice if charity could provide that sort of service and render it unnecessary for government to do it. I would like to believe that of course they can; but we can't assume that. Sometimes there are public good problems.

    I don't buy roxpublius' argument that getting cars off the road is a good, though. That's Luddism. We need to build more roads even if the only way to do it is to stack them up as they do in Chicago.

  9. jdgalt:

    I'd check the local "abandoned vehicle" law before trying that. In California your car would get towed and likely forfeited after 3 days parked on the street, and probably a shorter time in a patrolled lot. The patrols all have license plate scanners now, so you won't go unnoticed.

  10. Trey Tomeny:

    Thanks for your concern. The point is that this lot was built intentionally (and expensively) so people can do this. Every time I buy my $2.50 ticket and ride a few miles, I am adding to the ridership statistics so building that huge lot probably makes sense to the transit folks. I have used it without incident at least 10 times already. I do expect it will have a parking fee eventually as people catch on to it. It has only one entrance and exit so adding a toll booth would be easy.

    There are multiple similar free or low cost lots in the Denver area, where I also keep a car. They are not (yet, but coming soon) on light rail lines so they require a bus rather than a light rail connection to the airport. The fare there is much more expensive ($9.00 each way) reflecting that the airport itself is way out in the middle of nowhere.

  11. marque2:

    You can get creative. Double deck the freeways. Double the number of off and on ramps. It is dubious you will get 300,000 cars off the road with a mass transit system. Unless you force everyone to take the bus - which at least is a better value than trains.

  12. marque2:

    I agree with you about busses, instead of being 10x more costly that driving a car, it is probably only 2 - 3x as much as driving a car.

    However, busses tend to be scary.

  13. mx:

    It is dubious that you can fit 300,000 more cars on the road no matter how many roads you build. You can double the number of off and on ramps, but you can't widen the streets connected to those ramps without condemning billions of dollars in real estate and tearing down half of downtown. You also haven't addressed parking; most major urban centers aren't known for their abundance of easy and affordable parking options.

    Nor do people enjoy living surrounded by giant double deck freeways and major arterial streets.

    But really, why is it dubious you will get 300,000 cars off the road with a mass transit system? The NYC Subway alone runs about 5.5 million weekday riders. All of those people wouldn't commute by car if the subway didn't exist (because many don't have cars for one thing), but the vast majority of them aren't riding the train for recreational purposes. If they weren't riding the subway, many would either be commuting another way or would be forced to quit their jobs.

  14. mx:

    No. Luddism is thinking that the only way to get around is to hop in your own 4,000 pound machine with a gas engine attached, drive yourself somewhere, and then take up space parking your car while you do something else. Luddism is also thinking that anybody who would use mass transit is someone in need of charity because they are unable to drive.

    While solo driving is a perfectly valid form of transportation, it's far from the only option.

  15. mesocyclone:

    I remember when the only way we could get badly needed new freeways in the Phoenix area was to sign on to a proposition that also put a pile of money into our bloated, useless, for-downtown-elites "rapid" transit system.

  16. awp:

    The major subsidies of driving are
    1) (In Houston TTI mobility report data circa 2008) ~50% of driving is on locally provided roads and yet 100% of State and Govt. gas tax goes to State and Federally funded projects. To counter this, gas taxes should be at least doubled.
    2) Minimum parking requirements.

  17. slocum:

    But local roads networks were built before cars existed and would still be needed even if everybody rode bikes or took the bus and had all their goods delivered by FedEx and UPS. And minimum parking requirements are mostly a moot point -- shopping centers would have plentiful parking to satisfy their customers regardless of government mandates.

  18. awp:

    1)Correct, but doesn't matter. The gas tax collected for driving on local roads means that the gas tax is not really a complete State and Fed highway user tax. People driving on local roads (without paying the marginal cost) still damages them. Therefore, you cannot look at just gas tax revenue = state and federal highway expenditures and claim the state and federal highways systems are not subsidized.

    2) Then why are they "needed" if a moot point.

  19. marque2:

    NYC subways were built into the system. Most new rail systems are built after the fact and are designed to do things the politicians think clever - like revitalize downtown, by making the trollies go from Suburb to downtown, where few are working any more. Say I want to go cross town, I would have to take a train downtown, change trains and go to the suburbs in a different direction - making the ride so long it is impractical.

    I actually had a situation a few years back where I lived right next to the the LA blue line station in Long Beach, and my work was a block away from the green line station in El Segundo. Even with the proximity and not including wait time for the train, it took me 1/2 hour longer by train, than it did to just brave the overcrowded 405 freeway and crawl up to my work @ 20mph. (1:15 minutes vs 45 minutes) I tried the commute for 3 months. It worked out OK since my company gave the transit pass for virtually free, due to state government mandates, but without the subsidy it wasn't worth it. Note, if I had to stay an hour longer after work. The blue line slowed down, so I would have to wait 45 more minutes to transfer.

    If you got a good bus system going, granted it could get some people off the road, but trains for local commutes, cost more, take more time - and since they tear out car lanes to put in trains, lead to more congestion, then they remove.

  20. JLawson:

    NYC's subways work because there's no choice and no viable alternative.

    The whole country isn't NYC, much as they might like to think so. Where I live, when we had bus service it'd take about an hour each way to do a 10 mile commute, with a transfer each way. But we no longer have bus service (oddly, there weren't enough riders to keep the route open) so that isn't an option... not that it was one in the first place.

  21. Anonymous:

    It's the same in Michigan. From the time the snow stops in April until the time the snow starts again in October, the Orange Barrel Mafia (a.k.a. the Coleman Young Memorial Perpetual Jobs Program for Diverse Urban Yoots) has half the freeways in the state shut down for "urgent" repaving projects in which they dig up and repave the same sections of freeway, usually the same ones they did the previous year, year after year, world without end, amen. Year after year you can witness the miles of blocked-off lanes without a worker in sight, and when you do see workers, it is without fail one guy using a jackhammer surrounded by forty more stand around leaning on their shovels, eating sandwiches and smoking cigarettes.

    And here, too, the Democrats have been trying to ram through a "light rail" project linking Detroit with Ann Arbor since the 1990s. I can only guess that Google needs illiterate violent felons to write search engine code for them.

  22. Anonymous:

    Ah, the joys of public transportation. Speaking of Filthydelphia, that's where this was filmed:


    You could not pay me enough to step inside Philly city limits. You could not pay me enough to step onto a city bus.

  23. roxpublius:

    should i post a video of a drive-by and suggest that it illustrates the problems with funding roads?

  24. marque2:

    My machine is less than 2000 pounds, and makes stops in front of the Supermarket, something the Train and not even the bus do.

  25. marque2:

    I should also point out, the reason why 2000 pounds is more efficient generally than a bus that can hold 30 people - and is 10,000 pounds, the reason is half the time those buses are driving around empty, except for morning and evening commute. So you end up hauling 10,000 pounds around doing no work, and you have to account for all the pollution of the driver - since you need a driver resource as well as a bus resource.

  26. jdgalt:

    I conserve my own personal time and effort and don't care what it costs in other resources. This is just common sense.