A new five-year, $105 billion plan unveiled by President Bush last week for the nation's transportation system does a good job in streamlining the whole highway program, but the financial arrangements and shrinking support for mass transit are going to leave many people unhappy.
The plan would focus federal spending on a basic 150,000-mile "national highway system" that includes primary state routes in addition to the federally backed interstate system.It also would put most of the money into repairing the country's decaying highways and bridges instead of building new roads. And it would give the states a bigger voice in where and how funds are spent.
Those are good moves.
Biggest shocker in the plan is not the total amount, but who pays and how the money would be distributed. For example:
- States would have to pay more. Federal funding for highway repairs, now between 80 and 90 percent, would drop to about 75 percent for roads that were designated part of the 150,000-mile national highway system. For those not so designated, the federal share would be only 60 percent.
- To help raise more money, tolls would be allowed on existing interstates; fast-food restaurants and other businesses would be invited into interstate rest areas, and experiments could be done involving rush-hour fees on urban highways.
- The federal funding formula would be changed. Federal funds are now distributed to states largely according to federal-aid highway mileage. The new plan would base funds on fuel consumption (70 percent), mileage (15 percent) and land area (15 percent).
There are two things wrong with this approach. First, it rewards states that use more gasoline; the higher the consumption, the more federal money. It certainly doesn't encourage conservation. Second, places like Utah with wide-open spaces are sure to suffer by comparison to dense urban areas.
- Federal support of mass transit, while up in total dollars, would actually decline as a share of project cost. At present, the federal government pays 80 percent of mass transit construction. Under Bush's plan, that share would drop to 60 percent.
This means that adding more lanes to an existing freeway as a way of dealing with traffic congestion would attract a bigger share of federal funds than would a mass transit project. For places like the Wasatch Front, it makes development of a rail system more difficult.
In addition, the proposal would eliminate federal mass transit operating subsidies. This is sure to result in higher fares for bus and train riders and again penalizes mass transit in favor of highway projects.
This approach is hard to understand since demographers say that the greatest need is to improve traffic flow in and out of congested urban centers and suburbs and discourage rush-hour commuting.
If the Persian Gulf war teaches America anything, the major lesson surely is that oil prices are closely tied to the nation's economy and that any disruption can lead to a recession, or worse.
The United States must curtail its heavy dependence on imported oil - or oil in general, for that matter. A federal program that emphasizes highways at the expense of mass transit is sending the wrong message.