Adjusting to Fiscal and Political Realities in Transportation Funding

As this is written, we do not know the exact level of funding the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will propose in its draft legislation, to be unveiled in the first week of July and marked up the following week. Nor do we know what level of funding the Senate Finance Committee will come up with. But we do know that both Houses will be obliged to propose far less funding than is contained in the current (FY 2010) surface transportation budget of $52 billion ($41 billion for highways, $11 billion for transit). What will be the practical consequences of this belt tightening?

The proposition that the Federal Government "must learn to live within its means" has become the fiscal conservatives’ article of faith and an elliptical way of stating the Republican opposition to deficit financing. This principle has found its way into the House T&I Committee’s "Views and Estimates for Fiscal Year 2012" report and it has been reaffirmed in countless statements and briefings by congressional sources.

The practical implications of this policy for the federal-aid surface transportation program are unambiguous: federal budget authority in FY 2012 and beyond will be limited to the tax receipts flowing into the Highway Trust Fund. Those revenues (plus interest) will amount to an estimated $36.9 billion in 2011, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)— $31.8 billion to be credited to the Highway Account and $5.1 billion to the Transit Account. Over the next ten years, CBO estimates these revenues will grow at an average rate of a little more than one percent per year, largely reflecting expected growth in motor fuel consumption. ("The Highway Trust Fund and Paying for Highways," testimony of Joseph Kile, Asst. Director of CBO, before the Senate Finance Committee, May 17, 2011).

Thus, over a six-year period, 2012-2017, tax receipts credited to the Highway Trust Fund (plus interest) could be expected to amount to approximately $230 billion— about the same sum as was authorized in the 5-year SAFETEA-LU authorization ($238.5 billion).

Limiting future budget authority to tax revenues flowing into the Highway Trust Fund will cause a significant drop from the current funding level. However, current spending has been inflated by a massive injection of stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009— a total of $48 billion ($27.5 billion for highways, $6.8 billion for transit and $8 billion for high-speed rail). The stimulus almost doubled the annual amount of funding available  for transportation, making baseline comparisons misleading. A more accurate measure would be to compare the expected FY 2012 funding with pre-stimulus funding levels. In this comparison, the highway program would suffer a drop of 17% — from an average of $38.6 billion/year during SAFETEA-LU (FY 2005-2009) to $32 billion/year in FY 2012.  Adding the uncommitted HTF funds remaining in the Highway Account at the end of Fiscal Year 2011  ($14.8 billion, CBO estimate) would enable the annual highway allocation to be raised to about $34 billion/year — a drop of only 12 percent from the SAFETEA-LU level). (SAFETEA-LU data obtained from,  4/6/2006),

Such reductions, while not insignificant, would not be catastrophic. The cut in spending  authority could be absorbed by streamlining and narrowing the scope of the federal-aid program. Its primary mission would need to be refocused on traditional "core" highway and transit programs and on keeping existing transportation assets in a state of good repair. Discretionary awards such as the TIGER and high-speed rail grants would have to be eliminated. Proposals for major infrastructure spending (through the proposed Infrastructure Bank) would have to be dropped. So would programs that are deemed of little national significance or that do not serve the national need — such as various "transportation enhancements," set-asides, and "livability" projects that cater to narrow constituencies. Most of these Trust Fund "hitchikers," as Sen. James Inhofe calls them, will have to be handed off to state and local governments.

Will states and local governments be willing and able to pick up the slack? Some will, others may not. Many states and localities have been willing to approve significant transportation improvement programs– provided the objectives are clearly spelled out. In fact, voters approved 77 percent of local transportation ballot measures in 2010, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence.

While the above prospect may sound alarming when set against the current inflated spending levels, distorted by the stimulus spike, many fiscal conservatives view the new fiscal environment as an opportunity to return the federal-aid program to its original roots. Greater spending discipline, they hope, will refocus the federal mission on national interests and legitimate federal objectives, restore the program’s lost meaning and sense of purpose and give states and localities more voice and responsibility in managing their transportation future. With more constrained funding, certain hard-to-attain objectives such as greater emphasis on asset preservation, expanded use of highway pricing and tolling and higher levels of  private investment, will become a greater imperative and more achievable.

Let us also not forget that the federal contribution constitutes only about 25% of the nation's total surface transportation budget (40% of the capital budget). The rest is provided by state and local governments. The nation would still be spending more than $150 billion/year to preserve and improve our highways, bridges and transit systems— $50 billion short of the level recommended by the National Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission, but still a respectable level of funding.

What about major new infrastructure investments? Undoubtedly, they will be necessary in the longer run because of the need to replace aging facilities and to accommodate future growth in population. But major capital expenditures can be, and will have to be, deferred until the recession has ended, the economy has started growing again and the federal budget deficit has been brought under control. At that more distant moment in time, perhaps toward the end of this decade, the nation might be able to resume investing in new infrastructure and embark on a new series of "bold endeavors" — major capital additions to the nation’s highways and rail systems. For now, prudence, good judgment and the compelling need to rein in the budget deficit, dictate that government should live within its means. And that means spending no more than what we pay into the Trust Fund.