The House Appropriations Committee has released a proposed 2018 transportation funding bill that follows the administration’s proposal to end the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. This program, which spent $500 million a year funding numerous streetcar projects and other boondoggles around the country, was originally created to stimulate the economy. While there is no evidence that it actually did stimulate the economy, the economy arguably doesn’t need to be stimulated any more.
The bill funds $2.75 billion (a $500 million reduction from 2017) for the transit capital investment program (a.k.a. New Starts) and directs the Secretary of Transportation to “continue to administer” the program in accordance with the law. However, it doesn’t specifically mandate that the secretary sign any new full funding grant agreements, and so long as they remain unsigned, projects without such agreements can’t be funded.
As the Antiplanner predicted, the House rejected the administration’s proposal to stop funding Amtrak long-distance trains. Half the states are served only by long-distance trains, so cutting those trains effectively tells half of Congress that their interests are less important than those of the other half. The administration would be done better to propose to give Amtrak incentives to increase ridership in the form of 10 cents in subsidies per passenger mile carried. Since current federal subsidies average more than 20 cents a passenger mile (plus more from the states), this proposal would have led to a debate over “how much should the subsidy be?” rather than “which states should get subsidies?”
In addition to Amtrak’s $1.4 billion subsidy, the bill would provide $900 million towards the Gateway Project, a $20 billion program to rebuild Amtrak’s line from Newark to Penn Station in Manhattan, including new tunnels under the Hudson River. Although House rules forbid earmarks in appropriations bills, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), managed to slip in a requirement that $400 million of the $1.75 billion transit capital improvements plus the $500 million that previously went to TIGER grants would go to this project.
Amtrak loves to tell people that its Northeast Corridor trains make money, but it fails to mention that the corridor has $8.8 billion of deferred maintenance, not counting the $30 billion or more cost of replacing major bridges and tunnels that are more than 100 years old. Members of Congress should take a hard look at whether this spending is really worthwhile for a mode of travel that only carries 6 percent of intercity travelers in the corridor, and virtually no freight. Unfortunately, the administration’s decision to focus only on long-distance trains provided no opportunity for that debate to take place.
The bill also provides $45 billion in highway funding, which is the level authorized in the 2015 FAST Act. The problem is that Congress authorized itself to spend more than it is collecting in gas taxes and other highway user fees, so the highway system that used to require no federal subsidies now needs about $10 billion in subsidies per year. Congress should spend no more than it collects and let the states make up for any revenue shortfalls by increasing their user fees.
The House bill also rejects the administration’s proposal to end subsidies to marginal airports under the so-called Essential Air Service program. Again, the administration could have proposed to provide a fixed subsidy per passenger, thus changing the debate from “which airports should be subsidized?” to “how much should the subsidies be?”
In all, this bill is a marginal improvement over the 2017 bill. But the big wins–the end to TIGER and the lack of any mandates to fund streetcar and light-rail projects–are mitigated by the effective earmark of $900 million in funds to a project that, once started, will end up costing federal taxpayers billions of dollars more.