The federal Highway Trust Fund is expected to run out of money in a few months, and unless Congress replenishes it, state highway projects will supposedly grind to a halt. Special interest groups are working overtime to create a crisis atmosphere about the so-called “transportation cliff.”
In fact, this is more of a pothole than a cliff. Even if Congress doesn’t immediately restore the fund, states will get by with their own funds and through short-term loans.
The real issue is what happens after the cliff. On September 30, Congressional authority for the federal gas tax and highway and transit programs is set to expire. The artificial handwringing over the cliff is really just posturing for the debate over the reauthorization of those programs.
Most of the handwringing is coming from groups that want to see a huge increase in spending on transit. Transit carries just 1 percent as much travel as highways, yet 20 percent of federal gas taxes are diverted to transit, and many groups want even more.
Such subsidies do little for transit ridership. Since 1970, this country has spent around a trillion dollars subsidizing transit, yet ridership has fallen from 49 annual trips per urban resident in 1970 to just 44 trips today.
The push for transit spending comes partly from contractors who profit from building expensive new transit lines. The average light-rail line being planned or built today costs more per mile than a ten-lane freeway, yet will carry fewer people than one freeway lane.