Out of Control Policy Blog

Federal Transportation Spending Shortchanges Motorists

The Heritage Foundation has released a report updating U.S. Department of Transportation figures from 2004 on the federal subsidies per passenger mile by mode of transport. Automobile users more than pay their way while transit and Amtrak subsidies far outstrip their revenues generated.

More specifically, the report (Backgrounder 2283) by Wendell Cox and Ron Utt finds that in 2006 on a per passenger mile basis automobiles and vans provide a net subsidy to other modes of $1.01; intercity buses receive a federal subsidies of $1.50; commercial aviation receives a subsidy of $4.23; general aviation receives a subsidy of $66.27; mass transit receives a subsidy of $165.61; and intercity rail (largely Amtrak) receives a subsidy of $237.53.

As Cox and Utt write:

"The key to determining the magnitude of the federal subsidy that the passengers of each mode receive from the federal government is to separate the funding that each mode receives from its users (in the form of user fees) from the funding that it receives from the general taxpayer and from fees paid by users of other modes. For example, the federal highway trust fund relies entirely on fuel tax revenues and excise taxes paid by motorists and truckers. In 2007, these users provided $39.3 billion to the trust fund, yet they received only about 60 percent of those revenues back in the form of federal spending on general-purpose roads.[4] The remaining 40 percent was diverted to programs such as transit, National Parks, Appalachian development, hiking trails, bicycle paths, historic renovation, ferries, administrative costs, subsidies to metropolitan planning organizations, universities, and various programs for community development.

"Likewise, the federal subsidy per 1,000 passenger-miles for intercity buses is relatively low because these buses pay a federal fuel tax related to usage. The same holds true for commercial aviation in which both passengers and the airlines pay up to 17 separate fees, taxes, and charges for an international flight and 10 separate taxes, fees, and charges for a domestic flight. As in the cases of motorists and intercity bus operators, commercial airline passengers are largely "subsidizing" themselves."

Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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