Imagine taking a time-traveler from the year 2000 and dropping them into the middle of this week’s transportation news. What might their reaction have been to the following items:
Moody’s in the mood for transit … On the heels of yet another modern record for transit ridership, Streetsblog’s Tanya Snyder reported that the bond rating agency Moody’s has provided an optimistic view of the fiscal picture for America’s transit systems. The agency highlighted rising ridership, the emergence of state and local governments from the fiscal pressures of the Great Recession (which forced dramatic cuts at many transit agencies), and continued public support for transit as expressed at the fare gate and the ballot box as reasons for optimism.
Rebuilding Amtrak … Amtrak released a FY15 budget request (PDF) that highlighted the railroad’s improving financial health as it too experiences record ridership. Once a fiscal basket case, Amtrak revenues now cover 89 percent of its operating costs nationwide, and it continues to generate increasing revenues from passengers. In this year’s request, Amtrak proposed an accounting change that would enable the railroad to reinvest the $300 million in annual operating profits the railroad makes from its Northeast Corridor operations in capital improvements within the region, while shifting to Congress the responsibility for fully funding the railroad’s money-losing long-distance routes.
Have fun, fun, fun ‘til your daddy takes the Trust Fund away … The transportation funding crisis, meanwhile, looks increasingly grim. The U.S. DOT now forecasts that the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund will run dry at roughly the end of July, with the Mass Transit Account going broke soon after. Gas tax revenues may be stagnating due to increased vehicle fuel economy and reduced growth in driving, but states continue to spend transportation money hand over fist. What are they buying with that money? New roads! A new report from Smart Growth America finds that states spent most of their highway money between 2004 and 2008 on new capacity – a curious decision at a time of stagnating driving and growing need for repairs.
When it comes to transportation, these are strange and historic days, indeed. Public transportation and passenger rail are growing businesses and emerging investor darlings. Our nearly six decade-old system of federal funding for highways is on the verge of collapse. Lifestyle, technology and demographic changes are reducing the amount that we drive.
Those dramatic changes should be leading us to ask deep questions. How much, for example, should taxpayers like you and me pay to expand highways in an age of stagnating driving, as opposed to supporting the expansion and improvement of things like public transportation and passenger rail? What criteria should we use to determine which projects receive public support? How do we weigh the wisdom of investing in expansion projects – as opposed to efficiency improvements or other strategies – to address transportation challenges? And, perhaps most thornily, how do we revamp our transportation planning and policy infrastructure to make smart decisions possible?
On the surface, there is no evidence that these deeper questions are helping to shape public policy. Transportation “wants” continue to be passed off as “needs,” policy-makers continue to be mainly preoccupied with restoring the rapid flow of funding to a broken system, and the implications of recent changes in transportation trends continue to be largely ignored.
But in the offices of bond rating agencies, in enlightened corners of the blogosphere, and in hushed tones in transportation agencies, these conversations about our transportation future are starting to happen among people from across the political spectrum.
Let’s hope those conversations continue and gain traction, so that the decisions we make today and in the months and years to come make sense for our future.
 On the passenger rail side, see the recent private proposals for high-speed rail in Texas and Florida.
 Make no mistake, with proposals for raising the federal gas tax going nowhere, investments in transportation will largely be paid for by ordinary taxpayers, not drivers. The “user fee” model of highway finance, which has always fallen short of having drivers fully pay for highways, is on life support at the federal level and in many states as well.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.