Robbing Peter to pay Paul

San Antonio Sprawl
Highways like these in San Antonio get built with federal highway funds.

President Bush’s proposed budget for the 2009 fiscal year contained an alarming provision for “fixing” the transportation funding crisis. Unfortunately, the solution is akin to putting a band-aid on a gaping wound while also cutting off an arm.

Without getting too deep into the weeds, the Highway Trust Fund has been projected to run out of funds sometime in 2008 or 2009. The Trust Fund is funded through the federal gas tax, and for a plethora of reasons — an overly long project list, cost of materials, more roads to maintain, more earmarks — it will soon run out of funds.

Rather than address the under-lying problem of too little money for too many hoped-for highway projects, the Bush budget proposes to close the spending gap — for this year and this year only — by taking money from the public transportation account.  While the highway account is due to go into the red soon, the separate account  for transit still has $4.4 billion. Without saying how, exactly, the Bush administration plan promises the transit money will “paid back at a later date.”

Even the highway lobby recognizes that as a poor solution that will simply delay the inevitable for highway funds, while also assuring that there is no money left for transit either. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials opposes “this ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ strategy,” adding, “it will only serve to delay by one year the necessity to act to ensure sufficient revenue to the Highway Trust Fund to sustain highway programs at current levels. At the same time, it will accelerate a looming shortfall in the Mass Transit Account, potentially leaving that account in the red as soon as FY 2011.”

Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Association General Contractors of America said, “instead of a practical solution to fix the looming Highway Trust Fund crisis, which would guarantee full funding to states, the administration relies on smoke and mirrors by shifting money from the transit account.”

The transit-to-highways switcheroo is only part of the bad news. Also contained in the budget proposal is a plan to reduce funding for transit by $200 million from the level that is guaranteed in the last transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU). Transportation advocates far and wide sprang to action.

Mariia Zimmerman with Reconnecting America said: “’The Administration’s proposal will pull the rug out from under the hundreds of communities who want to invest in more transportation alternatives and provide lower-cost mobility options,’ Zimmerman says. ‘And it’s a slap in the face to the millions of Americans who rely on public transportation every day — whether they are too old, too young, or too poor to drive an automobile.’ Zimmerman says the administration has known for two years that federal highway funding was headed into a crisis, and that the federal investment for both public transportation and highway maintenance is insufficient.”

The American Public Transportation Association said: “Federal public transportation investment and highway investment are both insufficient. While it is important to fix the federal highway account in 2009, robbing Peter to pay Paul is not the way to go. Funding highways should not be done on the back of public transit riders. … Having a multi-modal transportation system that offers people different transportation choices is important for the country. The President’s short-sighted transportation policy “fix” is irresponsible and flies in the face of common sense.”

U.S Public Interest Research Group said: “U.S. PIRG strongly criticized President Bush’s proposed 2009 budget for reducing transit spending and raiding the Mass Transit Account at a time when national trends show the need for aggressive new investment in public transportation…’There is a perfect storm of trends that should favor far more investment in public transportation, not less. We’ve got everything from worsening oil dependency and urban traffic congestion to rising gas prices and a booming demand for public transit,’ said John Krieger, a transportation advocate at U.S. PIRG. ‘Moving in the wrong direction is tremendously irresponsible.’”

Keep your eyes peeled on our website and the blog for an upcoming analysis of President Bush’s full FY 09 budget proposal.

Here is the original E&E Story on the highway-to-transit switch (pdf). And here is a good primer on the Highway Trust Fund from the Northeast-Midwest Institute.

San Antonio photo from Flickr’s Kaptain Krispy Kreme.