States Still Spending More on Highways Than Mass Transit

THREE years after Congress gave states unprecedented control over transportation spending, they have poured far more federal dollars into highway projects and far less into mass-transit systems than Congress expected.

``We're very disappointed. Business as usual prevails,'' says Michael Replogle, a transportation expert at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), for example, spent $1.5 billion on new highway construction in fiscal year (FY) 1994. It spent just $33 million on new public-transit projects.

But highways must come first in sprawling Texas, which has more roads and bridges than any other state, argues Jack Foster, a TxDOT project manager who is developing a 20-year state transportation plan along federal guidelines. ``Texas has been careful about taking money away from highways,'' he admits. ``People perceive that we're not keeping up with highways as it is.''

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA, or ``ice tea'') is the federal legislation that helps to underwrite state transportation projects. ISTEA swept away a system of arbitrary spending categories that had evolved since the 1920s, under which states, for example, might be given too much money for new guardrails but not enough for bridge repairs.

Washington's new flexibility is ``revolutionary,'' although the common sense of such a posture might ``seem obvious,'' says Francis Francois, executive director of the American Association of State Transportation and Highway Officials in Washington.

ISTEA also required states to develop forward-looking transportation plans such as Mr. Foster's at the TxDOT. The plans, due to be submitted to federal officials by Jan. 1, are supposed to take into account such issues as pollution, land use, and energy efficiency. The plans should also give priority to urban needs such as ``alternatives to the solo commuting that is choking many cities,'' says Rep. Norman Mineta (D) of California, chairman of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation.

Mr. Mineta, one of ISTEA's authors, intended to double the federal commitment to mass transit. But far less money is flowing to those projects than envisaged, he says. As authorized, ISTEA directs $121 billion over six years to highway projects and $31 billion to mass transit. Despite this huge disparity in the allotment, states can spend some $70 billion of the combined categories either way. Of the $35 billion in flexible funding provided to states so far, 96 percent has gone to highway projects, according to Mineta.

``Of course we would like to see more funding going to the transit side,'' says Gail Williams, spokeswoman for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in Washington. ``But there's no problem. [The new act is] working as it was intended.''

But in a hearing last year, Mineta says he heard ``disturbing'' testimony that some states ``were resisting the new provisions of ISTEA and were trying to continue spending federal money on highways the same way they always had.''

Mr. Replogle alleges that ``sustainable alternatives have been put at the end of the line'' for funding by ``entrenched highway-construction interests.'' He charges state agencies and federal regulators with ``massive institutional civil disobedience'' for delaying the changes ISTEA envisaged.

Others cite less-sinister reasons, such as cities' unfamiliarity with the new program or their difficulties in raising matching funds in an era of tight budgets.

FTA deputy administrator Grace Crunican says her agency needs to spread the word to states and cities about transit-funding opportunities. Despite roadblocks and delays, states are giving transit projects an increasing share of ISTEA dollars: $300 million in FY 1992; $470 million in FY '93, and $600 million in FY '94, Ms. Crunican says.

Mr. Francois suggests that spending on transit has been even greater than these numbers indicate. In some cases, he says, states have sidestepped red tape by spending federal dollars on highways and shifting state dollars over to transit. One universal complaint is that Congress never appropriates full funding for ISTEA. As a result, ``we've never really seen how good the bill could be,'' Francois says.

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