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Formula for Transportation-Funding Success? Your Answers

Before moving on to other facets of transportation stimulus funding, here’s one more post about the formula for determining what share of those funds go to each state. (Earlier posts are here and here.) Let me pass along a few of the perceptive comments made by readers. To refresh your memories, the formula is:

* 25 percent based on total lane miles of federal-aid highways.
* 40 percent based on vehicle miles traveled on lanes on federal-aid highways.
* 35 percent based on estimated tax payments (e.g. from fuel taxes) attributable to highway users in the states into the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund (often referred to as “contributions” to the Highway Account).
* No state can receive less than one half of one percent of the spending.

Readers Jeff, Peggy, William, Mike D., PaulK, and Swashbuckler all gave some version of:

If you have received the benefit of massive pork in the past you have a higher percentage of federal highways in the present.

Jeff, Mike D. and Ben D. further noted its corollaries:

Rather than spending federal aid to repair roads, build new ones — which increases future aid-allocations based on criterion A.


Under-allocate funds to local roads, thus encouraging additional [federal-aid] highway usage which increases aid-allocations based on criterion B.

Matt points out that:

The gas tax [point C] benefits areas with large urban centers, where many people drive without using federal highways.

This is true, though you could make the opposite point: cities with lots of travel on non-federal aid highways are punished unfairly by criteria A and B.
Matt goes on:

States with very few roads (that are under the 0.5 percent minimum) have incentives to spend aid intended for transportation elsewhere rather than on roads, given that they won’t increase aid by spending more on roads given criterion D.

This is true, and it also touches on the “money is fungible” argument. Simply put, when we give states money earmarked for transportation, they can in effect transfer that money to elsewhere in the budget by diverting funds they would have spent on transportation anyway. Federal dollars simply replace state and local ones. Thus net transportation spending would increase less than advertised.
Peter seemed to be missing out on the splendor that is transportation finance:

In case you didn’t think the economic issues with this are boring enough on there [sic] own…

But he did have some valid points:
Allow me to point out the technical engineering flaws. … The formula doesn’t take into account regional differences in gradation, soils, and sub-grade. These factors all effect [sic] the cost of road construction …” (James and Jane had similar arguments.)
And finally:

Different roads have a different ratio of commercial and passenger traffic, so simple vehicle-miles are inefficient for determining wear and tear. … Virtually all road damage is caused by trucks rather than passenger cars due to their greater weight (this is why trucks are required to have so many wheels — to better distribute the load).

Last of all, Gary eloquently sprung to the defense of Delaware, which I maintained will receive disproportionate benefits from the formula:
Besides, Delaware is home of The Fightin’ Blue Hens! Fear the Bird!
This is a subtle, yet elegant and powerful argument, though if special disbursements for cities with terror-inducing bird mascots were incorporated into the formula, it could also be used to justify special funding for St. Louis, Baltimore, Phoenix, Atlanta, Seattle, etc.
Congrats to all of you who came up with such perceptive answers. Given your proven valor, I hereby deputize you junior U.C.L.A. transportation scholars, with a mandate to ruthlessly hunt down and right transportation finance wrongs wherever they rear their ugly heads. Considering that we have come up with no fewer than 12 inequities or inefficiencies in a 4-point formula, it doesn’t look like you’ll be lacking in opportunities to demonstrate your mettle.