Heritage Proposes Brainless Butchering of the Transportation Budget


In a bid to stir up controversy, the Heritage Foundation released a budget blueprint to advocate for extreme cuts to federal programs. Of course the transportation section attracted my attention, and what's in there is shockingly dumb. Heritage proposes taking a butcher knife to parts of transportation budget, specifically those supporting public transportation, to wit:

  • Eliminate Subsidies for the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) - $153.1 million
  • Phase out the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) - $4,013.0 million
  • Eliminate Grants to the National Rail Passenger Service Corporation (Amtrak) - $519.2 million
  • Eliminate the New Starts Transit Program - $2,221.3 million
  • Eliminate the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant he Program - $510.0 million

These proposed cuts to environmentally-friendly transportation options that benefit cities and suburbs where most American taxpayers live and work are profoundly wrongheaded. Transportation accounts for a large percentage of U.S. carbon emissions and when provided with mobility choices, Americans can pivot to options such as bus rapid transit or commuter rail to help reduce carbon pollution. The city of Flint is experiencing the results of infrastructure budget decisions made with little regard to public health and the environment, and federal budgeting must not make the same mistakes.

Even setting aside the social and environmental benefits of these investments, it's surprising that a group focused on weeding out wasteful government spending hasn't really analyzed the outside-of-the-Beltway costs of the cuts they propose. Take the proposed elimination (!) of the agency that invests in trains and buses nationwide. The Bipartisan Policy Center examined the consequences of an across-the-board cut in the federal transportation program a few years ago, and found the likely consequences for public transportation agencies would be devastating (see pp. 17-24 of their report here).

And what about competitive grantmaking programs such as TIGER and New Starts being in the crosshairs? The brief Heritage narrative for each disagrees with the way the competitions are set up, for example quibbling with some of the criteria. But at least these programs screen investments based on their likely effects, and such competition based on performance criteria is fiscally responsible policy. These programs leverage taxpayer dollars better than throwing them out to bureaucrats and contractors based on dumb formulas which Heritage appears to favor.

I suppose that explains why the massive highway accounts aren't mentioned at all in Heritage's proposal, despite Sutton's law. In 2014, federal spending on highways totaled $46 billion, substantially more than all proposed transit cuts combined.

In fact, the Congressional Budget Office just proposed in this analysis that the Federal Highway Administration learn lessons from competitive programs that Heritage seeks to cut. And that's not the first time that a smarter approach to reducing waste in the transportation program has been proposed by a credible group. For example, 5 years ago the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace proposed a comprehensive audit of federal transportation programs in order to reduce waste before making new investments. These proposals would do a world of good by analyzing the budget, taking a scalpel to reduce waste, and putting in place better program design to leverage dollars by spurring competition instead of complacency among transportation bureaucrats and contractors vying to spend our taxpayer dollars.

To be clear, I share the desire to reduce spending on inefficient programs and develop new strategies to best meet the needs of Americans. In fact I agree with one proposal in the Heritage budget -- eliminating the Essential Air Service program, which is both environmentally damaging and fiscally wasteful as I've written about here.

But the haphazard and ideologically driven proposals in this advocacy document would harm transportation users by indiscriminately slashing programs regardless of their effectiveness. Fiscally responsible transportation budgeting requires actual analysis (!), targeted cuts in spending and improved program designs to leverage every dollar more effectively. Travelers and commuters in America deserve no less from our national government.