$32 Billion for Public Transit in COVID-19 Relief Bill Wasteful, Researcher Says

$32 Billion for Public Transit in COVID-19 Relief Bill Wasteful, Researcher Says
A subway train at a Brooklyn station in New York City on Nov. 18, 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Petr Svab

The more than $32 billion promised to public transit agencies in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill is excessive and wasteful, according to David Ditch, budget and transportation researcher at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, who says the money represents an effort to perpetuate a political gravy train.

The money represents some 60 percent of all the public transit operating expenses of 2018, according to Jeff Davis, senior fellow at Eno, a transportation think tank.

Given that public transportation already receives about $10 billion a year in federal subsidies, the cash injection would mean that trains and buses will run this year mostly on federal dollars.

According to Ditch, that doesn't make sense.

Efforts to slow the spread of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic have cratered transit use across the United States. Daily ridership on the New York City transit system, by far the largest in the nation, is down more than 60 percent year-over-year. That roughly mirrors the situation nationwide, according to third-quarter 2020 data from the American Public Transportation Association (pdf).
Less than 5 percent of American workers used public transportation to get to work in 2019, according to Census Bureau data. If that number has also declined at the same rate as ridership, the federal government is now subsidizing each public transit commuter to the tune of over $5,000.

Initially, pandemic lockdowns were seen as a one-off disruption of the system that needed to be bridged with taxpayer money. But that's not how they are being used now.

Mass transit hubs tend to be concentrated in densely populated, Democratic-controlled areas where lockdowns seem to be a rolling feature, with a fleeting chance of going away anytime soon. While vaccinations and falling case numbers sparked hope of a return to something more normal, government officials haven't expressed optimism on those fronts, citing new virus mutations that may prove to be somewhat resistant to the vaccines.

The newest line of reasoning from Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is that the spread of the virus still needs to be curbed to stem the development of new mutations.

Meanwhile, trends in labor and real estate markets indicate that some changes in public transit use will remain permanent. People are moving away from big cities, which means more car commuting, while many companies are adopting permanent or partially remote work regimes. Even those who are sticking around the cities are likely to be more reluctant to get on a crowded bus or train.

“It’s not going to be [that] everything snaps right back to where it was in 2019. There are going to be long-term shifts,” Ditch told The Epoch Times in a phone call.

“The federal government shouldn’t be in the business of freezing things the way they were last February. There needs to be a recognition that the world has changed and when it comes to things like mass transit or airlines, some of the reasons people travel, some of the patterns, are going to shift.

"And we might end up having a shrinking of the airline sector. We might have a shrinking of the transit sector,” he said.

Mass Transit Priorities

The gargantuan relief package is a reflection of misspending on public transportation that has been baked into federal policy for decades, Ditch told The Epoch Times.
Federal transportation funding generally comes from the Highway Trust Fund, which is supported by its own fuel tax but has notoriously teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Since 2008, it’s been bailed out to the tune of more than $144 billion by taxpayers and will require still more this year to avoid insolvency, according to the Congressional Budgeting Office.

The trust was initially formed through the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 to fund the construction of an interstate highway system, which was started as a defense project to allow troop movement across the country.

But that goal was accomplished decades ago. Federal transportation spending has since mutated into a cash cow for local infrastructure projects, suffering from thick layers of red tape and priorities skewed by political considerations, Ditch and fellow Heritage researcher Nicolas Loris wrote in a 2019 paper.

Some continual funding would have been necessary to maintain the interstates. But maintenance now constitutes only a tiny fraction of the federal spending.

“While a federal focus on capital spending made some sense during the period of creating the interstate system, today it reflects a bias towards announcing new projects and attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies over ensuring that existing infrastructure remains in good condition,” the paper says.

Transit project investment makes a lot of sense politically, Ditch explained.

“If the project gets funded at the top level by the federal government, and the federal government cuts a check to the state or local government, that means the Senator, the Congressman, the Governor, the state elected representatives, and the local representatives all get to take credit for a given project,” he said.

But each layer of government adds its bureaucracy, making projects lengthy and expensive, not to mention further political considerations, such as favoring large, fancy projects to bare-bones practical ones.

“We’re going to all this effort to maximize the value for politicians but it’s reducing the value of infrastructure that we get for each dollar spent,” Ditch said.

Mass transit is also touted as environmentally friendly. But that only applies in dense urban areas where people use it heavily. Once trains and buses drive at less than half-full, the benefits disappear, Ditch said, explaining that most U.S. cities are too small or spread out to make full use of mass transit, not to mention that Americans tend to prefer cars anyway.

“This is tilting the windmills to try to imagine that if we keep throwing money at transit that other parts of the country will become New York City,” he said. “It’s not happening.”

The lockdowns have further undermined transit prospects, as they often forced buses and trains to run at reduced capacity.

Even the handful of cities where transit should make sense, such as San Francisco, are making it less so by keeping the population density artificially low through restrictive zoning laws, Ditch said.

Centralizing the spending priorities further leads to a one-size-fits-none situation, where local politicians greenlight projects not necessarily based on what’s truly needed, but rather on what the current federal regulations emphasize.

“There are lots of states and localities that, because of federal funding formulas, end up spending more on transit than they ever would want to,” Ditch said.

Changing course, on the other hand, carries political risks as transit workers' unions preside over a powerful voting block and campaign funding war chest.

The “end game” seems to be “to just keep things going the way they’re going because the workers in question have more political value than others,” Ditch said.

Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.