A Mass Transit Mess
The Bush administration shouldn't borrow money from public transportation to pay for highways.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

FOR THE FIRST time in 28 years, Americans are driving less, a happy development for proponents of public transportation. But as people shift to buses and subways, they are encountering transit systems that are crowded and outdated. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has put forth a plan that would make those problems worse.

Ms. Peters has proposed borrowing money from the Highway Trust Fund's mass transit account to cover a projected $3.1 billion shortfall in highway maintenance and construction. It is unclear, though, whether Ms. Peters could borrow the money without harming mass transit capital projects such as the purchase of subway cars and construction of bus garages. Transportation groups also worry that repaying the money could be difficult if gas tax revenue continues to decline. The proposal is a shortsighted solution that would take money away from mass transit at the wrong time.

The Highway Trust Fund, which helps pay for highway and transit projects across the country, is veering toward bankruptcy. It could be out of money by the end of the year. The problem? High gas prices are causing Americans to drive fewer miles: The total in May was down 3.7 percent compared with the same period last year. This is good for the environment but bad for projects funded by the federal gas tax.

Last month, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to shift $8 billion from the government's general fund to cover the shortfall. The Senate will wait until reconvening in September to consider the bill, and President Bush has threatened a veto. The administration argues that the mass transit account has a surplus of about $3 billion and that the money wouldn't be missed. But it's inaccurate to describe a rapidly eroding fund that was as high as $11 billion a few years ago as being in surplus. Increased ridership has put a strain on the finances of transit systems. Already there are reports of cities reducing services and hiking fares. Such cuts will deepen without an increase in federal funding.

The $8 billion infusion approved by the House would be a temporary fix. Lawmakers need to work toward a sustainable solution. Increasing a gas tax that has remained unchanged for the past 15 years and has lost much of its value to inflation would certainly help, but the gas tax will bring in less money if Americans stay off the road or switch to other fuels. One solution is to charge commuters for the miles they drive instead of the gas they purchase. Fees could vary depending on whether drivers traveled in urban or rural areas, or during rush hours or off-peak times. That could measure road usage more precisely than the gas tax does, and it is something the next administration should consider. In the meantime, the Bush administration should withdraw a proposal that would jeopardize the future of mass transit.

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