On transport funding in the new administration (updated)

Updated November 10, 2016, 18:34 CST.

Laura Bliss over at CityLab writes “On Tuesday Night, Transit Was Victorious — Cities committed to paying for the rail and bus systems they want. But a Republican-led Congress might threaten that.” She then wrote: “What U.S. Transportation Policy Could Look Like Under Trump“. Apparently I was in fine, fine form for the interview, giving no F’s.

After the worriers worry about transit funding being cut, I am quoted in the first article:

On other hand, University of Minnesota transportation scholar David Levinson isn’t so worried. “I think there will be more money being spent on transportation rather than less,” he says, based on Trump’s frequent campaign statements about infrastructure funding. And he sees little reason why transit’s share would necessarily suffer. “My bet will always be on something that resembles the status quo, because there is always a large coalition of interests behind it.”

So in short, until reauthorization (2020 or so), the current division of the gas tax stands.

There will likely be a new pot of money from repatriating foreign earnings of US companies at a lower corporate tax rate, (something like the Boxer-Rand proposal) which will get spent on something. Some of that will go to New York for rail when Trump cuts a deal with Chuck Schumer and the Democrats.

In the second article:

The repatriation scheme might not bring in tons of bacon, but it could make some additional cash available for transportation projects. “I don’t see why he wouldn’t follow through on this,” says David Levinson, a transportation scholar at the University of Minnesota. “It’s like a free lunch.” And privatizing certain infrastructure projects can work well under certain circumstances, and such a relationship might appeal to a spending-averse Republican Congress.

There might be new ‘public private partnerships’ (i.e. private toll roads as concessions), and the tax code will be modified to encourage that, but that is all peripheral, and most of the potential projects are not going to be attractive to either party.


In the second article:

Plus, even for infrastructure projects that appeal more to private investors, like highways, it’s very hard to strike a win-win deal between public and private sectors. Just look at the Indiana Toll Road: Initially feared to be a giveaway on the part of the state, its private operators went bankrupt. “Harder deals will be drawn which might not go well for states,” says Levinson.


Somewhat grimly, Levinson foresees a different potential cash bucket that could pay for Trump’s infrastructure plans: a major stimulus plan, much like the Recovery Act of 2009, which will “tie in well with the new recession that will be coming up shortly.” He says he could see tens of billions getting devoted mostly to infrastructure. “Trump is a builder,” Levinson says. “He likes his big, highly visible infrastructure objects and his ribbon-cutting ceremonies. He will go for quick wins where he can get them.”

In the second article:

Levinson worries less about federal transit dollars disappearing, but he does believe that the geography of investment will track shifting relationships between federal, state, and local leaders. “Funding decisions will be more overtly political,” he says. As infrastructure spending bills get earmarked, federal funds may wind up more concentrated in Republican districts. A shiny new commuter light-rail [sic] project in one of the more conservative counties surrounding Minneapolis, for example, might be more likely to get assistance than a light-rail or a bus-rapid transit project that serves the city itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, that could mean that the people who form the core of U.S. transit ridership—lower-income Americans who live in urban areas and do not own vehicles—might draw the short end of the stick.

Of course I am not worried because I don’t worry about these things. To be clear, as I have written previously, US federal transportation funding is misallocated to begin with. Highway funds should be Fix It First.

It would be much better from both efficiency and equity perspectives (though obviously not through the frame of political expediency) to spend the transit money directly on transit users, who can then pay higher transit fares (or just have more money in their pocket) which can then be used to redirect resources toward better services for everyone rather than new facilities for an elect few. See my report: Modernizing American Transportation Policy.