Transit debate roils infrastructure funding hearing

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A debate about funding for public transit systems roiled an otherwise largely congenial House hearing on Tuesday about the future of transportation funding.

At issue was the approximately 2.8 cents per gallon of the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax is set aside for public transit.

The bill that authorizes the collection of the gas tax, which is traditionally used to pay for federal transportation projects, is scheduled to expire in September.

Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) questioned on Tuesday whether it was fare to continue to use money that is paid by drivers when they purchase gasoline for their cars to pay for public transportation projects. 

“People who use mass transit are not all poor. I’ve been in New York City, I’m a New Yorker, and there’s a lot of wealthy people that ride the transit,” Hanna said to a member of the panel that was assembled who was advocated for more transit funding.

“It’s a great way to get around, and as you say, each year 35 million people load themselves,” Hanna continued. “Why doesn’t that lead you to the conclusion that people who take mass transit should not pay something toward that? Because now those people who you say are using gas and diesel… they’re subsidizing mass transit, and there’s no quid pro quo in reverse and yet you’re here asking for more money.”

Approximately 20 percent of the gas tax collections have been set aside in a "mass transit account" in the highway trust fund since 1982.

Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley defunded the transit subsidy on Tuesday, saying that public transportation riders paid their fare share to the federal government in other ways.

“They do pay. They pay huge fares, they pay income taxes, they pay real estate taxes, [which] all fund transit,” Hanley said. “It’s not as if transit riders are getting a free ride.”

Hanna was not convinced of the equivalence, however.

“The federal government subsidizes [transit riders], but…people who use the rest of the transportation system have historically paid directly unsubsidized,” he said.

“Part of the problem and the difficult on this committee is…we need to have a conversation about to pay [for] this,” Hanna continued.

“Why shouldn’t ridership be a part of that when not everybody is disadvantaged who rides transit, and increasingly the opposite is true? How do you justify that sort of a transfer of taxes? Why specifically do you think people who ride mass transit have no obligation to pay what other people in this country pay through their diesel, excise and gas tax?”

Hanley said Hanna was advancing a “myth” that drivers pay more for federal infrastructure spending than mass transit users.

“The fact is, the subsidy per rider is much less than the subsidy per car owner in America,” he said.

The union president added that cuts to public transportation funding disproportionately impact poor citizens.

“Certainly there are very wealthy people who ride transit every day,” Hanley said. “There are also very poor people who have no cars.”

Hanna was still unconvinced, proclaiming that “poor people also have cars.”

Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) came to Hanley’s defense, arguing that public transportation use benefited drivers in other ways.

“I’ve been so intrigued by these conversations about transit riders subsidizing the transit for what we put into the gas tax for roads because I can think of a number of public goods that we get for having transit in place, not the least of which is taking so many people off the highways so that our trucks and commercial vehicles can travel more safely and more efficiently,” said Edwards, whose district includes portions of the Washington, D.C. Metrorail subway system.

“If we’re going to begin to quantify things, I hope we begin to quantify some of those things when it comes to asking whether transit is a net positive or a negative,” Edwards continued. “Frankly sometimes people in my district and my state ask me why…we’re subsidizing roads out in the middle of nowhere, and I say ‘you know it’s because we’re Americans and we make an investment in a national system, and so the folks in the rural areas get their roads and in our metropolitan area, we get our transit.’”

House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) sought to play peacemaker, arguing that transit systems do provide a benefit to the overall transportation system, but also should operate with less subsidies.  

“The federal government does provide dollars for the highways, but it’s a user-based system, so if you use it you pay for it,” Shuster said.

The Pennsylvania lawmaker touted his use of Amtrak service between Harrisburg, Pa. and Philadelphia, saying he thought it was so confident that he should be charged more for it.

“Every time I get on that train and I look at the ticket price and I figure on the back of the envelope calculation, I should paying more for it,” Shuster said. “I’m prime time. They’re not making money. I think they’ve inched it up some, but when I do the back on the envelope on gas, tolls, parking, my productivity goes from zero when I’m driving to 100 percent.”

Shuster said the logic of measure convenience should be factored into to setting fares on transit systems.

“We have to be looking at those kinds of things and how we can make transit systems [more profitable],” Shuster said. “I don’t think they’re every going to pay for themselves, but to get them paying more for themselves, so that everybody can benefit…because the argument is right, people who get on transit aren’t in their cars and [more driving] would cause us a huge congestion.”