The Transportation Budget

April 4, 2011

The president’s budget blueprint for fiscal year 2012 continues the administration’s support for transit by significantly increasing funding, restructuring accounts and amending deficiencies in how programs are implemented. The budget lays out a plan to bring order to the disparate funding schemes currently patched together under various programs. In the current economic and political climate, this proposed budget demonstrates the president’s determination to improve America’s transportation infrastructure over the next six years and beyond.

The blueprint replaces the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) with a newly created Transportation Trust Fund (TTF), a significant step in the right direction to give transit parity with highways, including a measure of insulation from political meddling. The TTF as proposed comprises four accounts: transit, highway, high-speed passenger rail and a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB). Sources for portions of the $556 billion spending request and proposed spending increases were not identified. Although the blueprint called for consultation with Congress, funding is sure to be the key battle.

The 2012 budget calls for continuation of the Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery Program (TIGER) with $2 billion in funding, then replacement of the TIGER program with the NIB, funded at $5 billion per year during the six years of the surface transportation authorization bill. This new account would fund multi-modal projects identified as having significant regional and national impact.

Full funding to implement the surface transportation plan is unlikely. But the plan puts the issues on the table for discussion. Perhaps the most fundamental dispute in Congress concerning transportation is the need for public transit. Federal funds provide significant support to airports, highways, ports and other infrastructure that strengthens our national commercial interests. Although funding for these areas also is debated, there is typically widespread support for expansion and maintenance.

Do some lawmakers view transit in a different light, seeing transit as not as crucial to commerce as other transportation elements? Based on past votes, it appears the answer is yes. Some members of Congress would like to leave transit funding entirely to local governments and private enterprise. Unfortunately, sales and property tax revenues are insufficient for states and municipalities to be the principal supporters of transit systems, an unsustainable obligation when tax revenues were strong.

Strong transit systems add efficiency within cities. A high-speed rail network, connecting city centers, reduces travel times and airport loads. Reducing foreign oil dependence and greenhouse gas reductions are also real outcomes of a shift to more utilization of public transit. Funding to reach these goals should be a national priority, with responsibility to implement at the local level.