Photo by Olaf on Flickr.

House Democrats have released a draft of the federal stimulus package. Among the $275 billion in spending is $30 billion for highways and $10 billion for transit. That’s still way too much highway money, but at least it’s a big small step up from the existing status quo which gave only 3% of federal money

20% of federal transportation money to transit.

Most of the highway money will go to new sprawl-inducing lane miles. “In 2006, the Department of Transportation estimated $8.5 billion was needed to maintain current systems and $61.4 billion was needed to improve highways and bridges.” And the plan’s authors don’t appear to have heard of induced demand, writing, “These projects create jobs in the short term while saving commuters time and money in the long term.” Actually, since the 1950s we’ve learned that many highway project don’t actually save time or money in the long term.

"Public transportation saves Americans time and money, saving as much as 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline and reducing carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons each year,” the report also says. Of course, it says nothing about the environmental impacts of the highway building, since those increase carbon emissions.

The plan dedicated $1 billion to “new commuter rail or light rail systems ... and to speed projects already in construction.” That’s less than half of the $2.4 billion needed to fund projects the FTA has already approved, meaning many of the projects won’t get stimulus money. (The highway portion only funds about the same percentage, $30 billion of $64 billion in potential projects.)

Existing systems will get $2 billion for “renovations to stations, security systems, computers, equipment, structures, signals, and communications. Funds will be distributed through the existing formula. The repair backlog is nearly $50 billion.” Likewise, systems get $6 billion “to purchase buses and equipment needed to increase public transportation and improve intermodal and transit facilities,” funding only a portion of “a $3.2 billion maintenance backlog and $9.2 billion in needed improvements.” The American Public Transportation Association thinks potential projects are even greater, “787 ready-to-go transit projects totaling $15.5 billion.”

Finally, intercity passenger rail gets $1.1 billion to improve “speed and capacity ... The Department of Transportation’s Inspector General estimates the North East Corridor alone has a backlog of over $10 billion.”

The chart below compares spending (green and red) with the unfunded transportation needs (blue).


Tip: Matthew Yglesias, who adds, “keep in mind that the process of getting a bill through the Senate is all-but-certain to make things worse.”

Update: The above chart assumes that every highway repair project gets funded, before adding new lane miles. According to Transportation for America, the highway lobby is pushing for more expansions over repairs. Sign their petition to ask that repairs go before road expansion.

Update 2: The 3% statistic is wrong. That compared apples to oranges, weighing the transit money for only new construction against all highway construction and repair dollars. The DOT budget actually devotes 20% of transportation trust fund money to transit. This stimulus, with 25%, is only a small improvement.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.