Failure of transit programs prompts renewed call to end federal gas tax diversions

Federal Highway Administration reports a 3.5% increase in vehicle miles traveled in 2015. Yet, 28% of federal surface transportation funds (which primarily originate from federal gasoline taxes) are diverted from highways to public transit. It’s high time this raid of road funds ends. If local cities want mass transit, they should pay for it with local taxes, not raid federal road dollars to waste on transit systems with little to no riders.

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By Terri Hall | June 6, 2016

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When you digest the latest report on public transit by Steven Polzin of the University of South Florida, it deals a fatal blow to the philosophy, ‘If you build it, they will come.’

The report notes a 1.3% – 2.5% decline in transit ridership in 2015. But perhaps the most damaging figure is that transit ridership has remained flat for 45 years. That’s a pretty stubborn figure. Contrary to the narrative of transit advocates, overall ridership has also remained flat despite fluctuations in the price of gasoline. Meanwhile, transit supply has exploded while demand for transit has remained the same and even declined (despite lack of car ownership among millennials, urbanization, and the high cost of car ownership). So, after spending billions in taxpayer dollars on shiny new buses and rail cars, government has little to show for it in terms of actual riders.

By contrast, the Federal Highway Administration reports a 3.5% increase in vehicle miles traveled in 2015. Yet, 28% of federal surface transportation funds (which primarily originate from federal gasoline taxes) are diverted from highways to public transit. It’s high time this raid of road funds ends. If local cities want mass transit, they should pay for it with local taxes, not raid federal road dollars to waste on transit systems with little to no riders just to satisfy their anti-automobile and anti-petroleum ideology.

Transit only accounts for 2% of total trips taken nationally, with 40% of all mass transit trips originating in one city — New York, which is arguably built around mass transit. New York is unique and its travel patterns have not been duplicated on a large scale by most other cities in America.

In, yet, another sign that the age of transit investment on a federal level needs to cease, millennials, the oft-repeated reason as to why taxpayers must ‘invest’ in more mass transit, represented the largest group of car buyers last year. TransUnion data recently reported that this group is the “fastest-growing segment of auto-loan consumers,” responsible for 27% of total auto-loan originations in 2014, compared to only 16% of the same market in 2009. J.D. Power reports millennials’ share of new vehicles bought rocketed to 27 percent in 2014 from 18 percent in 2010.

Why? Driving laws restrict the time of day and the number of passengers in the car for new license-holders in many states. States have also imposed daunting new requirements in time behind the wheel in order for teens to obtain a license, which caused a decline in the number of those obtaining a drivers license. Plus, the recession resulted in many millennials being unemployed or underemployed, while others were saddled with student-loan debt putting car loans out of reach. But, as they’ve aged, millennials have gained more job skills and wages have increased (albeit slowly). Now, they’re buying cars like hotcakes.

In, yet, another blow to transit, the private ride sharing revolution launched by Uber has solved the problem of how to get passengers door-to-door, clearly the most glaring challenge for mass transit. Ride sharing has proven more efficient and easier (simply hail a ride with a mobile app), and in many cases considered safer, cleaner, and better than both transit and taxis.

Cities trying to over-regulate ride sharing companies, like Austin, Corpus Christi, Houston, Midland, and Galveston, are bending to taxi cab unions and public transit employees who see Uber and Lyft competition as an end to their dominance. But, it’s an end whose time has come. Ever since the federal government passed the Urban Transportation Act in 1964 effectively ending private transit services, local governments with the aid of the feds have been the primary operator of transit services. It’s time for the rise of free market alternatives to the public transit monopoly, and ride sharing is the perfect impetus to make it happen.

All of these factors combined scream for reform of the public transit money pit. Taxpayers must step-up the pressure on their members of Congress to end all diversions of the federal gasoline tax, especially transit, and finally take serious efforts to make the federal highway trust fund solvent again. In memory of fellow Texan and Reagan-era Federal Highway Administrator Ray Barnhart, lawmakers would be wise to adopt his pay-as-you-go approach to transportation funding and leave federal gas-tax funds for roads and highways, where they belong. Public transit is a local matter.


Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of ten turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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