I’m leaving out the District of Columbia, which tops out at over $350 per resident.  The precise Washington figure is $4.65.

I spent most of the first 21 years of my life living in Maryland (in the DC area!) and Massachusetts, which might explain why my expectations are so high.


Funding data from APTA’s 2005 “Survey of State Funding for Public Transportation” (pdf)

2008 population data from Wikipedia.

30 Replies to “Chart of the Day”

  1. Think how big of a difference just getting every state to $20 per capita would make. It would more than quadruple the state spending on transit in Washington state, for starters.

    1. You’re assuming new taxes at the State level in addition to all the local taxes that are used now. Taxing state wide in Washington for transit needs that are about as diverse as it gets doesn’t make sense. If Olympia did have that extra Jackson to spend do you really think it would be wisely spent or flow back in equitable portions to the areas from where it was raised?

      1. It would have to be set up to flow back for the most cost effective projects, and then yes, it would work well.

      2. Bernie, I think at least some of the money would be competitive bids like the current state transit investments. Certainly it wouldn’t just be parceled back to rural areas — transit investments generally focus on urban areas. The recognition that metropolitan areas are important for the state’s economic well-being being necessary for this idea to float at the state level. Olympia isn’t there yet. It’s a shame.

  2. Different States have different funding models. Personally I’d much rather see King County use local taxes to fund transit than send it down to Olympia. A chart that shows by state per capita total government subsidy (State+Federal+Local) would be more telling.

    1. Not for what this chart is showing: Olympia puts very little money towards transit, even though Washington State residents ride transit a lot.

    2. This is pretty telling. Our state government contributes very little to transit. Have a look at Minnesota – that’s pretty similar, very spread out, a major city hub, and they get ten times as much state funding as we do.

  3. I was wondering what model Hawaii uses for funding since it’s one of the most liberal states in the nation yet the chart shows near zero state funding for transit. This article $2B In Federal Funds Aim To Stimulate Hawaii doesn’t really say. It does point out $50M out of $2B is going to buses (2.5%). I think there’s more “transit spending than just that.

    Of course it’s a very different environment but Honolulu has a population of ~400,000 (twice that of Tacoma) and there’s ~900,000 on the island of Oahu so it’s not all palm trees and secluded beaches.

    1. Bernie,

      The report I link to goes into a ton of detail on each state’s funding, FWIW.

      1. I looked briefly at the report and it appears to have loads of detail on how the state collects the revenue but doesn’t have anything about non state funding. So a state could have a very high per capita investment in transit but just not be doing it at the state level. It’s not surprising for instance that the District of Columbia would have a high level of “State” funding because there aren’t multiple levels of city and county governments all with different needs.

      2. Bernie,

        If we consistently used this “local needs differ” model, then your argument would have more merit. The road needs for King County and Asotin County are really different; the education needs of Rainier Beach High School and a village of 200 are certainly very different, and not just in scale. But although local jurisdictions are supposed to chip in for both education and roads, the State manages to find funds for both rather than saying each county is on its own.

        Meanwhile, when it comes to transit “every county for itself” is very much the model. If King County has a higher per-capita transit need than Whatcom, well that’s King County’s problem. If capacity is too low on a given corridor they’ll commit huge amounts to adding a lane (Hello, I-405), but if you want to more cost-effectively build a rail line, the state doesn’t have a dime for you.

        And that’s really the point of the graph.

      3. The state provides a very minimum level of support state wide for education. All of the high school kids have to pass the state mandated WASL to get a high school diploma. Local levys are a big part of education funding. That way voters in each school district get to decide if they want to fund more fine arts or more football. The state highway system is, well a state system. Cities have to fund their own roads. The only transit systems that are at the state level are the ferries and Amtrak Cascades and those are state funded. Maybe the state should put more money toward those but to do that they have either tax more or cut somewhere else. That’s a different debate.

        I can’t think of any reason at all that you’d want to take local dollars, send them to Olympia and involve the state senate in the appropriations process. Isn’t the city council (or PSRC, ST) a lot better for deciding where and how those dollars should be spent?

      4. Bernie, the state has bigger coffers can provide more funding, quicker, than a local taxing district. The difference between a $800 million grant from the State vs. raising $800 via the sales tax is one of time. It takes years for local governments to raise the amount of revenue necessary to get the bonds needed to build high-capacity transit infrastructure like rail.

        It’s also a matter of shared burden. Everyone in the state benefits from a robust I-90 corridor. Everyone in the state benefits from a metropolitan area that has alternatives to congestion.

        I don’t think ST is going to get any more taxing authority soon (-ish), so state funding would help with under-funded projects like the D-to-M project in Tacoma, etc.

        State funding represents something else, too. It will mean that finally Olympia gets that we’re all in this together. How many times do we have to talk about lawmakers who want to dismantle ST or prevent East Link from crossing I-90? We’re tired of having this debate. We want the state to support transit, not oppose it at every other turn.

        The biggest reason for me is that graph above, though. Most of those states have robust metro areas served by rail. They’re doing something right. Let’s follow their lead and beat Wyoming and Tennessee.

      5. John,
        The state is flat broke. I don’t know where you got the idea it’s got coffers full of money it can throw at more transit spending. And raising state taxes has proved to be very difficult politically. Cost estimates are rising faster on the SR520 replacement than funding can be secured; even with the “pre-pay” toll proposals.

        The state highway system is funded largely by the gas tax so if you don’t drive you don’t pay. In fact if you ride transit you are getting a state subsidy any time you’re on a bus using state funded roads.

        I wonder how much of the state spending on things like HOV lanes was apportioned to per capita transit spending in the chart?

      6. Bernie, of course the state is in financial trouble right now. We have to ignore the reality of the current economic crisis. In particular, I would understand if state transit funding is decreased right now — it’s just that it’s been ignored even during boom years that is frustrating. I mean, Metro is considering cutting 20% service specifically because its taxing authority has to go through the state and potentially to voters — that isn’t a model of a transit system that is safe and secure because of local funding.

        Here’s the facts: the state can raise money a lot faster than a local taxing district. That improves the construction time of major infrastructure projects.

        The state highway system is funded largely by the gas tax so if you don’t drive you don’t pay.

        Is that the only concern? Local roads are often funded from the general fund. The Federal highway trust fund got billions from the general fund last year. The stimulus package gave billions to highways from the general fund. The 520 “risk pool” funding of $1bn do not come from the gas tax. Our roads infrastructure in totality is certainly not only paid for by drivers, that’s just not true.

        There are external costs too that you ignore. Pollution, decreased productivity due to congestion, less healthy lifestyles.

        The point is that “transportation” doesn’t always mean “roads.” If you have to spend billions to expand some highway, but transit along that corridor would be both smarter and cheaper, then the state should have the brains and the ability to fund the better project.

        Or, if it’s not head-to-head directly: if the transit system isn’t able to flourish as it would with state backing, then the necessity for more costly roads expansion can bubble up. Ironically, this often leads to a increased dependence on costly roads expansion in the future.

        In fact if you ride transit you are getting a state subsidy any time you’re on a bus using state funded roads.

        So the fuel that buses run on is exempt from the gas tax? I doubt it.

        I wonder how much of the state spending on things like HOV lanes was apportioned to per capita transit spending in the chart?

        HOV lanes aren’t solely transit spending, though bus lanes are. But Sound Transit has funded HOV lanes and HOV-only offramps, and yes they can earn transit funding through the competitive state process and would probably count toward the total in the above graph.

      7. So the fuel that buses run on is exempt from the gas tax? I doubt it.

        That’s a good question. I believe Metro does have to pay the gas tax. But probably not if they use alternate fuels like CNG. I don’t know if it’s still the case but motorists not only didn’t pay a gas tax on propane powered vehicles they could apply to the state for a refund on sales tax. I believe transit agencies are exempt from the excise taxes other heavy commercial vehicles have to pay in relation to weight (though I’m not sure on that). I don’t know if they pay state sales tax on bus purchases which would be interesting to know.

        I can see a good argument for exempting transit from the gas tax. It appears West Virginian does. The state gets a benefit from transit in as far as it provides greater capacity for a given roadway. I’d like to see the shortfall in revenue made up by either increasing the gas tax or (better) congestion based tolling like they’re using on SR 167.

    2. Hawaii is not really one of the most liberal states, just one of the most Democratic. The Democrats in Hawaii tend to be fairly moderate.

      The City and County of Honolulu pays for most of its own bus system, in a public-private partnership. There is very limit transit on the other islands.

  4. I’m not sure this chart is entirely fair. In some cases like New Jersey the statewide bus and rail agency is an arm of the state department of transportation. In others while the agency has a more limited scope it is technically a part of state government. With Alaska I imagine at least part of the figure is the state-owned Alaska Railroad and Alaska Marine Highway system.

    Imagine if for instance if Metro or Sound Transit was an arm of state government. Technically their taxes and spending would count as state transit funding.

    1. Sure, and in that case Metro and ST would have much more capital at their disposal for projects without costly and dramatic elections or years of waiting for sale taxes to accumulate. They’d also get more support from the state, and potentially have better bond ratings.

      1. King County (which Metro is a part of) and Sound Transit both have a AAA bond rating, it doesn’t get much better than that. The State of Washington only has a AA+ rating.

      2. This was a problem, in particular, for Sound Transit in the past. Transit agencies that are just starting up often face that burden. Indeed it doesn’t really matter right now, but having state backing makes an overall much stronger financial picture.

    2. Yeah, if Metro or Sound Transit were part of the state, they’d either be abysmal like Cascades (which is why we don’t do that, really), or they’d get billions a year.

  5. A better graph might be segmented by per capita spending by metropolitan areas. Washington and Oregon’s state-level spending might look low, but if this graph were by metro area, things would look considerably different. Another interesting dimension would be per capita spent by people actually served by transit — little tiny towns in the middle of nowhere shouldn’t affect spending in urban areas.

  6. States have widely different densities, and percentages of their population living in dense areas. We shouldn’t expect uniform funding across states for transit, should we? Don’t we expect higher state subsidies for denser populations?

    Given that, though, Hawaii IS way behind, because most of Hawaii lives on Oahu, and most of Oahu lives in [relatively] dense Honolulu.

    And… Washington is beyond broke. It is missing billions of dollars of revenues to fund annual programs this year. There is no bond market for the state, either. As I understand it, the legislature has been seeking about $4B in bond funding this year, and the maximum available in the bond market now is about $0.75B.

    So we’re still catching up to this really tough situation. There may be some federal dollars for transit, but there is no new state or local money. Not this year, and probably not next. And actually there’s way LESS money this year. The way to pay for transit now is higher taxes, and of course there is little public support for raising taxes.

  7. Washington was not so bad at state funding for transit a few years ago before Tim Eyman began his campaign to destroy transit and ferries. It used to be that the state matched locally-generated transit revenues with the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET). Not only did this help leverage local transit dollars, it also provided a more stable and predictable stream of revenue. The MVET is a property tax based on the value of cars, so it did not rise and fall as rapidly with the economy. We are really feeling the effect of losing MVET funding today.

    I did a report for another state a few years ago comparing state funding for transit between states. While I knew Washington did not provide a lot of state funding post-695, I was a little surprised that we do a lot better than some other states in providing tax options for local governments for transit. In some cases where state funding is higher, there is no mechanism to raise local transit revenues, and the net result is less funding for transit (and perhaps less local control as well). The best way to look at this is the total of state and local revenues, and Washington doesn’t fare as badly when you look at it that way – particularly after the recent Sound Transit ballot win.

    The bigger issue we’re facing now isn’t the level of funding, but the fragility or reliability of the funding when the economy is bad. When I saw the headline today that the MVET is being considered for ferries again, I thought – transit needs to pile on to that idea too!

  8. I lived off and on in DC and Maryland since the 70s. The sprawl is endless. Problem is they did not build the phase 2 Metro connection between suburban stations and keep development only around stations. The farms are all gone, most rapidly after the sewer moratorium was lifted. And the big wide roads that lead to the spanking new mcmansions are just gorgeous (not)

    Everything does not devolve to one single center city anymore. We need to understand that.

Comments are closed.