The New York Times editorial board yesterday called for the incoming Obama administration to deliver when it comes to mass transit. It’s certainly a message we can support. Federal funding of local transit projects — especially fixed-guideway rail that is most effective at moving people and developing neighborhoods — is a necessity.

For years, the division of transportation money in Washington has heavily favored cars and trucks — more than 80 percent of the big transit money from gas taxes goes to highways and bridges, and less than 20 percent to railroads or mass transit. [Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee] Mr. Oberstar is leading the charge to change that formula and divide this money a little more evenly. This will not be easy. Automobiles will be with us a long time, and old spending habits die hard. But as part of the stimulus package now under discussion for transportation, Mr. Oberstar is proposing $30 billion for highways and bridges and $12 billion for public transit. That is certainly a far healthier mix.

The new administration could further help mass transit by shelving the unfair “cost effectiveness index” that President Bush put in place several years ago for new transit programs. The net effect of this index was to make it easier to build highways and almost impossible to use federal money for buses, streetcars, light rail, trolleys — indeed, any commuter-rail projects.

For Mr. Obama’s transit agenda and for [incoming Secretary of Transporation] Mr. LaHood, the next big challenge will be a transit bill that Congress must pass by September.

It’s certainly a message we can support. There’s a lot of work for us in the transit community to advocate for. Certainly Obama’s economic recovery plan — which will include an estimated $350bn in infrastructure spending — offers opportunities for transit, but also challenges since many states will by habit direct spending toward roads. Raising the gas tax may be politically unlikely, but it would allow for more money to be directed to transit while simultaneously maintaining our highway infrastructure from decay (without relying on stimulus programs to do it for us). But perhaps the most important upcoming piece of work is, as the Times says, reauthorizing the transit spending bill. We need more money for projects, a bigger federal share of the funding, and a stronger focus on rail.

6 Replies to “NY Times to Obama: Focus on Transit”

    1. Best to assume we’ll “have to make him” (to paraphrase FDR).

      Not to mention Congress gets a say in whatever ultimately gets passed.

  1. I have two issues with federal gas taxes funding public transport. One: why should taxpayers in Omaha and Miami pay for light rail development in Seattle? (for example). Two: Gas taxes are obviously a tax on gasoline, which is consumed by cars, which use roads. Therefore, logically, shouldn’t revenue from gas taxes go toward road improvements?

    1. Neil nothing is very logical about taxes. I don’t want my property taxes funding the Iraq war but nobody asked me… I would much rather sponsor light rail somewhere else.

    2. Why should my income tax in Washington pay for a bridge to no-where in alaska? Why should my pay-roll tax pay for health care for some guy in Omaha or Miami?

    3. First, taxpayers in Omaha and Miami fund the freeways, ports, and airports here, and we do the same for them. We could get the federal government out of the transportation business altogether, but until we do that failing to subsidize transit is de facto favoring use of cars, which is a terrible policy choice.

      As for using the gas tax for roads only, creating transit options is often more effective at reducing congestion than adding more lanes. Why cut off the most cost-effective option? Secondly, driving has a lot of externalities — pollution, dependence on oil imports, congestion, worsened public health — that most economist would say should be paid by drivers, over and above what it costs to maintain the road system. The gas tax doesn’t cover those maintenance requirements, much less cover the other costs to society.

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