How to Reform and Get More Value From Federal Transportation Programs

As Congress grapples with impending budget cuts, we need to do a fundamental rethink of how the federal government assists with much-needed transportation infrastructure. The reality going forward is that there will be no such thing as “general revenue” funding for much of anything beyond entitlements, defense, and interest on the national debt. As long as the federal budget remains grossly unbalanced, general-fund investments in infrastructure are essentially borrowed from China—an unsustainable situation.

Three key principles are necessary for a sustainable federal role in infrastructure:

  1. Users should pay for the infrastructure they use;
  2. Large capital projects should be financed, via revenue bonds and other mechanisms; and,
  3. The federal role should be narrowed to do only things that are truly interstate in nature, which means shifting more responsibility to the states, metro areas, and the private sector.

Reason Foundation’s new policy brief, “Funding Transportation Infrastructure in a Fiscally Constrained Environment,” explains why the model used for federal transportation programs—user taxes feeding centralized trust funds that make annual grants for cash-based investments, increasingly subsidized by general-fund money—needs replacing:

  • Because these user taxes are seen as taxes, Congress seldom increases them, even when their real value declines due to inflation and other factors.
  • Each transportation program involves large cross-subsidies, in which some users pay for other users’ projects, often for projects of low real value.
  • Federal money comes with costly strings attached, such as Davis-Bacon and Buy America requirements, needlessly raising the cost of federally aided projects.
  • Federal programs over-emphasize new capacity, leading to large amounts of deferred maintenance on existing infrastructure.
  • Most federal programs encourage state and local governments to fund large capital projects out of annual cash flow, rather than financing them over time, as businesses (and home-buyers) do.

The report sets out a comprehensive set of organizational, tax policy, and regulatory changes that would implement the above principles, thereby ensuring needed, cost-effective investment in airports, air traffic control, highways and bridges, ports and waterways, transit, and passenger rail.

Airports already make use of much of the proposed approach, and the report recommends that airports be liberated from federal grant funding by being allowed to self-fund their runway and terminal expansion projects. The only thing Congress would have to do is to remove the federal cap on individual airports’ passenger facility charges, which would enable airports to expand their revenue bonding abilities for such projects. Eliminating airport grants for passenger airports would save $2 billion a year.

The air traffic control system could easily be self-supporting from fees and charges, as are the air traffic control systems in Western Europe, Australia, Canada, and even South Africa. A decade ago Congress reorganized the Federal Aviation Administration, creating the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) within it. The ATO should be separated from FAA as a government or nonprofit corporation, funded and governed by its users and regulated for safety by the FAA.

The Highway Trust Fund (HTF) should be refocused on interstate commerce, rather than trying to do surface transportation at all levels of government, from sidewalks and bike paths to urban transit to recreational trails. Its revised focus should be the Interstates and others that make up just the National Highway System. Thus refocused, the HTF would no longer need the large general fund subsidies provided since 2007. To help states accommodate their enlarged responsibilities, the remaining federal barriers to states use of tolling should be abolished, and a larger share of federal aid should be in the form of loans via the TIFIA program, rather than grants.

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is broken, but not only because Congress spends only half the money generated by the Harbor Maintenance Tax each year. It is also broken because it takes money from ports that don’t need significant dredging and spends it on ports that do. But since all ports are in competition with one another, that policy makes no sense. Each port should self-fund whatever dredging it needs, with the cost being borne by that port’s users.

Federal waterways policy is even less sustainable, since the diesel tax paid by commercial carriers covers only eight percent of federal spending on channel dredging and lock-and-dam capital and operating costs. Waterways interests are calling for large increases in federal general fund support, but even the research arm of the Army Corps of Engineers has suggested the alternative of self-funded waterways, with larger user fees making possible revenue bond financing of needed improvements.

Passenger rail is problematic, because airlines and bus lines provide basically unsubsidized service to the vast majority of inter-city passengers. Where niche markets for passenger rail exist (e.g., the Northeast corridor), passenger fares and related real-estate value-added should become the means of support. The private sector may have a role to play in such service, especially if Congress deregulates post-Amtrak rail labor.

Urban transit, while playing an important role, is quintessentially the responsibility of specific urban regions, which derive all the benefits from such service. Federal funding has biased many transit investment decisions away from cost-effective bus and bus rapid transit projects to very costly and not very effective rail projects. Subways and commuter rail have a key role to play in very dense urban areas with large traditional central business districts, but that description applies to only a handful of America’s largest urban areas.

In short, federal transportation infrastructure programs are in dire need of major reform. This is not simply because the federal government is running out of discretionary funding. It is also because all of these programs misallocate resources. What this country cannot afford is to continue putting tens of billions of dollars into programs that waste resources by favoring low-value projects over high-value projects. A large-scale shift to users-pay/users-benefit, revenue bond financing, and devolving some federal responsibilities to state, metro-area, and private-sector parties will revitalize U.S. transportation infrastructure, allocating investment dollars where they will be most productive.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.