Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Robbing Peter (aka mass transit) to pay Paul (aka highway construction projects)

According to an article published last week in the New York Times, the US Federal Government may be taking a 'loan' from the mass transit account in order to pay for ongoing road projects. The problem, according to the story, is that with gas prices climbing higher and higher, less people are filling their cars and as a result gas taxes--typically used to pay for road and highway improvements--are plummeting.

The problem with this? People whop have stopped filling their tanks are using public transit instead, meaning that if there ever was a time the US mass transit account needed that money, that time would be now. And excerpt of the Times story:
WASHINGTON — Gasoline tax revenue is falling so fast that the federal government may not be able to meet its commitments to states for road projects already under way, the secretary of transportation said Monday.

The secretary, Mary E. Peters, said the short-term solution would be for the Highway Trust Fund’s highway account to borrow money from the fund’s mass transit account, a step that would balance the accounts as highway travel declines and use of mass transit increases. Both trends are being driven by the high price of gasoline and diesel fuel.

There is, naturally, a slight amount of concern expressed with this reactive, short-sighted measure. Including the thoughts of the president of the American Public Transportation Association (as quoted in that same Times article):
“Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not the way to go,” said the president of the American Public Transportation Association, William W. Millar. “The administration proposal is shortsighted and would mean that the mass transit account would be reduced to the point where there would not be enough money to fund the federal transit program in 2010, even at the current level.”
This news was originally brought to my attention by Grist, a blog on environmental news and commentary, who came up with this gem of sarcasm:
High gas prices are shifting people from cars into mass transit. The only appropriate response, clearly, is to rob the mass transit accounts to pay for highway projects.
So it goes. It is, however, a difficult decision. These repairs, in some instances, are already in progress, and halting at this point due to a budgetary deficit would simply leave incomplete projects on hiatus. I don't envy the next president, or whoever is going to have to make the decision. I hope that, if he does take a 'loan', it doesn't become a permanent one, however.

EDIT: A little more information, this from an editorial in The Washington Post:
Ms. Peters has proposed borrowing money from the Highway Trust Fund's mass transit account to cover a projected $3.1 billion shortfall in highway maintenance and construction. It is unclear, though, whether Ms. Peters could borrow the money without harming mass transit capital projects such as the purchase of subway cars and construction of bus garages. Transportation groups also worry that repaying the money could be difficult if gas tax revenue continues to decline. The proposal is a shortsighted solution that would take money away from mass transit at the wrong time.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Very insightful post.

It illustrated very well how the system is sometimes stacked against public transit.