The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pew report highlights local, state, federal role in transportation funding

Where money to maintain and build roads and public transportation comes from is an important challenge facing officials at all levels of government. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A report released Tuesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts is a useful primer on the roles that various levels of government play in funding transportation.

The report, the first in the “Fiscal Federalism in Action” series, details the flow of money from Washington, D.C., to the states and finally to local governments. Increasingly, the challenge officials at all levels of government face is how it will maintain and grow its transportation infrastructure, the report notes.

My colleague Ashley Halsey has written extensively about the challenges that the U.S. faces in maintaining its roads and aging infrastructure at a time when one of the primary mechanisms for funding those projects at the federal level, the highway trust fund,  is quickly running low on dollars. That’s because much of the money that goes into the fund comes from an 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax that has not been raised since 1993. Between 2002 and 2012, federal gas tax revenue fell by $15 billion, or 30 percent in real terms, the report says. This summer, Congress approved a stopgap measure to continue funding transportation projects, but the deal will last only until next May, when lawmakers will once again have to take up the question of how to pay for transportation.

According to Pew’s analysis, between 2007 and 2011, the average annual spending on highway and transit nationwide was $207 billion. Of that total, $82 billion or 40 percent, comes from states; $74 billion or 36 percent comes from localities and $51 billion or 25 percent comes from the federal government.

The nation’s priorities have shifted when it comes to transportation infrastructure. The focus on new construction and expansion has given way to maintenance. In 2013, roughly half of federal funds went toward upkeep, the report says.

The report also notes something that has long concerned smart growth advocates — that the bulk of federal dollars, roughly 80 percent, goes toward highways rather than public transportation.  At the local level however, funds are more likely to be evenly split between highway and transit, Pew notes.

The Pew report offers some ideas but does not make any specific recommendations for how to raise money to fund transportation infrastructure. That wasn’t their goal, its authors say. Instead, officials at Pew are making an  effort to educate policymakers and the public about how the system works and the challenges ahead.