Policy Study

Defederalizing Transportation Funding

Executive Summary

Airports, highways, and mass transit systems are primarily state and local responsibilities. They are developed and operated by state and local governments (with increasing private-sector involvement) and funded primarily from state and local sources. Yet the federal government, by collecting transportation user taxes and using them to make grants for these systems, both raises the costs and exerts significant control over these state and local activities.

Congress should devolve transportation infrastructure funding and responsibilities to cities and states, ending federal grant programs and their accompanying restrictions. Cities and states have been open to privatization, and most would welcome the flexibility and freedom from costly federal regulations which devolution would give them. Devolving transportation funding would lead to more-productive investment, greater intermodalism, more innovation, and new capital from the private sector.

Conventional wisdom suggests that 21 states are net donors to the federal highway program and the rest are net recipients. But this paper’s analysis, taking into account the real costs of federal funding and regulations, concludes that 33 states get back less than they contribute in highway taxes and would be better off if the funds were left in their states to begin with. By adding such major states as Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to the donor-state category, this assessment could change the political dynamics in favor of devolution.

Abundant evidence now exists that federal transit programs have stimulated investment in unviable rail systems and have needlessly boosted transit system operating costs. The flexibility created by repeal of federal transit regulations would permit changes (such as competitive contracting of transit operations) that could save enough to offset much of the loss of federal operating subsidies. It would be up to cities and states to decide whether to continue to invest in non-cost-effective rail transit.

The only truly federal role in aviation is ensuring safety and facilitating the modernization of the air traffic control system. The latter can best be accomplished by divesting ATC to a user-funded corporation, as 16 other countries have done. Airports should be defederalized; all sizes of commercial airports could make up for the loss of federal grants with modest per-passenger charges. States could decide whether to subsidize unviable general aviation airports.

Overall, the federal government would retain certain coordination and safety-regulation functions in transportation. But it would henceforth leave investment and management decisions to state, city, and private decision-makers.


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.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.