Many environmental groups, business trade associations, and
state and local governments anticipate that new Democratic
leadership in Washington next year will lead to major changes in
federal surface transportation policy. With the current highway
authorization law (SAFETEA-LU) set to expire in September 2009,
many of these organizations are recommending a substantial increase
in federal transportation spending and expect that it will be
funded by an equally substantial increase in the federal fuel tax
(now set at 18.3 cents per gallon of gasoline).
At the same time, many environmental groups, labor unions,
consultants, and construction companies are urging the federal
government to redirect federal transportation policy toward 19th
century transportation options by shifting federal resources from
highways and autos to transit and trains, as well as hiking and
biking, in the belief that these latter modes--while slower and
more costly--are more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly.
With an opportunity to receive greater subsidies, the transit and
train lobbies have moved aggressively to influence Congress and the
media, and many in Congress are already promising to push for these
But as the facts reveal, such a shift would cost vast sums of
money, yield little or no transportation benefits, and undermine
our economic well being by limiting mobility and raising the cost
Money in Transit
Despite claims of underfunding, the share of federal spending on
transit vastly exceeds its passenger market share. Whereas about 20
percent of federal surface transportation spending is devoted to
transit, only 1.9 percent of all urban passenger
travel and 4.9 percent of all commuters use
Despite many years of massive government spending on transit--a
total of $1 trillion (inflation adjusted) since 1970--transit has experienced serious market
share losses. In 1970, 8.5 percent of commuters used transit, but
4.9 percent did in 2007.
Although carpooling receives very little government financial
support, in 2007 more commuters carpooled (10.4 percent) than used
transit (4.9 percent). Where modest government investments have
been made in carpooling, the results have been impressive: In the
Washington, D.C., suburb of Prince William County, Virginia, where
a dedicated HOV lane is supported by remote commuter parking lots
and a well-organized driver/rider system, 17.6 percent of commuters
carpool, compared to the 4.7 percent that use transit.
The share of "commuters" who work at home--an employment option
that also receives little federal encouragement--reached 4.1
percent in 2007 compared to 4.9 percent for transit. At current
trends, the share of the job market that works at home will exceed
that of transit by 2012.
Jumping the Rails
U.S. transit ridership is concentrated in just a few
metropolitan areas. In 2007, 74 percent of U.S. transit ridership
took place in just seven metropolitan areas: New York;
Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Chicago; San Francisco; and
Los Angeles. In the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area, which has
made massive investments in a light rail system and
transit-oriented development, only 5.5 percent of commuters in the
area used transit in 2007, well below the pre-light-rail (1980) share
of 8.4 percent.
Despite exaggerated claims that Americans are turning to
transit, more than half of the much-heralded increase in transit
ridership is concentrated in a single metropolitan area: Of
the 10.8 percent increase in nationwide transit ridership that
occurred between 2005 and 2007, 60 percent of that increase
occurred in the New York City urbanized area.
Transit advocates recently claimed that high gas prices have
encouraged motorists to abandon their cars in favor of transit, but
a detailed analysis of recent trends reveals that only 3 percent of
the reduction in auto use shifted to transit by early 2008. The
other 97 percent of the reduction in vehicle miles traveled in
automobiles was absorbed by carpools, working at home, less auto
use, walking, and more efficient auto use (combining trips, for
example). This estimate closely tracks recent polling
results on changing travel patterns, which found that 4 percent of
commuters used transit instead of driving, 9 percent shifted to
carpools, and 66 percent combined multiple trips into a single
Is Amtrak Underfunded?
Passenger rail advocates have made similar claims (and
complaints) for Amtrak, but the record does not support them.
Despite claims of rising ridership, Amtrak still serves less than 1
percent of the intercity travel market. A 15 percent increase of a
miniscule share of the market is still a miniscule share of the
market. Indeed, despite ridership gains, so far this year Amtrak
trains are only 51.6 percent full, compared to more than 80 percent
for commercial airlines.
Amtrak's complaints of being underfunded are also exaggerated.
Although it accounts for only about one-half of 1 percent of the
intercity passenger market, it will receive 2.5 percent of the
federal surface transportation spending in FY 2008, nearly five
times its market share. Of all of the modes of travel, Amtrak
riders receive far and away the highest per passenger federal
subsidy. According to a 2004 U.S. Department of Transportation
study, Amtrak passengers received a federal subsidy of $210.31 per
passenger per thousand miles, compared to $4.66 for intercity buses
and $6.18 for commercial airlines. Automobiles earn a
"profit" for the federal government since only about 63 percent of
the federal fuel taxes paid by motorists are spent on roads; most
of the rest is spent on transit.
Claims that Amtrak subsidies are justified because trains save
on energy are also not supported by the facts. According to an
earlier U.S. Department of Energy analysis of per passenger per
mile BTU use by alternative travel modes, intercity buses are
nearly three times more fuel efficient than passenger rail
(Amtrak). In effect, America could achieve
significant savings in energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
if it shut down Amtrak and transferred all passengers to buses.
Laying the Groundwork
Congress may soon be embarking upon a massive spending program
that is without precedent. And while the purposes of such a package
will be both to stimulate the economy and "lay the groundwork for
long-term economic growth," as President-elect Obama promised, the
facts presented above suggest that money devoted to technologically
obsolete transportation schemes that the public does not use will
undermine both of these goals, and America will be a poorer place
because of it.
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Fellow and
Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is
Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A.
Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage
figure bottomed out at 4.6 percent in 2000, before the substantial
increase in gasoline costs.
Census Bureau, American FactFinder, "United States, Selected
Economic Characteristics: 2007."
"Estimated Diversion of Roadway Traffic to Transit: 2008: Quarter
U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United
States Government, Fiscal Year 2009 (Washington, D.C., U.S.
Government Printing Office, 2008), p. 100.
U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation
Statistics, "Federal Subsidies to Passenger Transportation,"
December 2004, Table 3.