Don’t Forget About Mass Transit When Improving Transportation Infrastructure

Since early December of 2017, there has been a rapid spate in fatal transit accidents in the United States.  From the Amtrak Cascades tragedy that killed 3 people in Washington State to the Amtrak-CSX crash in South Carolina, Americans are beginning to see the the gravity of our transportation situation.  However, the federal government needs to change how it funds transportation in order to improve American infrastructure, especially our mass transit systems, which barely pass inspection.

To most, an average grade of a D+ is unsatisfactory.  Very few would trust a doctor with a below average understanding of the human body, or a machine that only works between 65%-70% of the time.  However, the American public appears to be content with this substandard grade with regard to the quality of the nation’s infrastructure. For 2017, the Infrastructure Report Card rated the overall quality of America’s infrastructure as a D+, with no infrastructure category receiving an A.  Of the 16 categories, which include rail, roads, ports, and schools, public transit received the lowest grade, a D-, which is extremely concerning. Not only does this indicate an extremely substandard condition of existing structures and services, but also that public transit is not reaching its potential to play a major role in improving the overall traffic infrastructure in the nation.  With benefits ranging from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to promoting compact growth, a counter to the current trend of urban sprawl, mass transit systems can lead the country to a better future.  The severe lack of funding for expansion and upkeep must be addressed in order to not only improve the quality of existing public transit, but also to facilitate the expansion of transit systems throughout the nation.

Currently, public transportation receives federal money through the Highway Trust Fund.  Out of this account, which has dedicated funding derived from the federal gas tax and similar duties, mass transit received only 16% of all funding in 2014.  This level of federal funding amounted to over $11 billion in between 2010 and 2015.  This accounts for 18% of all funding going towards public transit.  The majority of funding comes from state and local governments. Although mass transit receives around $46 billion to cover operating costs and around $17 billion for expansion, its current D+ rating indicates the insufficiency of the amount of funding from all levels of government.  While $63 billion might appear massive, the nation suffers a $90 billion backlog in funding for mass transit maintenance.  This lack of funding has severe consequences, which is evident in the 17% of mass transit systems and 37% of stations that have severely degraded quality.  Additionally, the lack of federal dollars, which covers around 42% of capital expenditures, prevents needed expansion of the public transit system.

This disregard for the quality and quantity of public transportation poses short term and long term problems for the country.  In the short run, failing transportation infrastructure puts human lives in danger. For example, since 2004, it is estimated that more than 70 people have been killed and around 1400 injured, due to insufficient modernization of railroads.  Without immediate investment, dozens of transit riders will continue to suffer fatal injuries. In the long run, the nation deprives itself of increased effectiveness and efficiency in transportation infrastructure.  One of the most widely felt benefits that mass transit can provide is aiding in the reduction of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. As of 2015, transportation accounted for 27% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing the reach and effectiveness of public transit, combined with raising the gas tax, should incentivize individuals to utilize mass transit.  This switch will reduce carbon emissions through decreasing congestion and utilizing cleaner sources of energy.

Last February, President Trump announced his support for a 25 cent increase in the federal gas tax to add to the Highway Trust Fund.  This measure is projected to generate approximately $840 billion by 2050.  However, as mentioned above, the mass transit account would only receive 16%, or $134.4 billion, of the new revenue generated.  By 2032 it is projected that the mass transit account would need $122 billion just for repairs and maintenance of existing systems.  This would only leave approximately an additional $12.4 billion of funds for capital expenditures.  To put this in perspective, New York City’s recent subway expansion could potentially cost over $17 billion.  Expansion is key to fully reap the benefits that mass transit can provide, and since the government provides the lion’s share of funds for capital projects, $12.4 billion is not enough.

If the country wants to take transportation infrastructure seriously, the federal government must expand the amount of funds that go into the mass transit account.  Even assuming that the gas tax is approved, it does not appear that there will be enough funds to increase the mass transit grade to a satisfactory level.  Will this require an even higher gas tax, or perhaps an increase in the percentage of funds dedicated to mass transit in the Highway Trust Fund?  This uncertainty in how to reach a solution indicates that policymakers must prioritize eliminating the funding gap for mass transit.