Scoping Out Transportation Subsidies


Every morning, when you step into a plane, train, car or bus, your trip is probably subsidized – directly or indirectly –by the federal government. Yet while transportation spending is projected to total $119 billion this fiscal year (including stimulus money), it receives relatively little scrutiny.

Today, Subsidyscope launches its transportation site, which will highlight overlooked stories, from expensive projects in sparsely populated areas to which public transit agencies get the most money. The site will also give you a chance to find these stories yourself. We’ve created a searchable database allowing users to find transportation subsidies by state; by type of recipient (for-profit company, for instance); and by mode (highways, public transit, etc.), among other options. You can also type in a search term, such as the name of a company or a type of fuel, for a more targeted approach.

We’ve developed an innovative way to identify programs we think are subsidies. Using tags, we’ve excluded transportation programs that are primarily safety- or enforcement-related; users can take our approach or ignore our suggestions and slice the data another way by choosing different tags.

Here are a few of the interesting things we’ve found so far:

  • From fiscal years 2000 through 2008, the government spent far more on highways than on other modes. Highways received 76 percent of the direct expenditures; public transit came in a distant second at 16 percent.
  • From fiscal years 2000 through 2008, Alaska received more transportation funding per resident — $8,167 – than any other state. This was almost eight times higher than California, which saw the lowest per-capita spending ($1,031).
  • Last year, tax breaks to employees for parking cost the government an estimated $2.92 billion in lost revenue. Tax breaks for employer-provided transit passes, in contrast, amounted to only $480 million last year. While the gap is narrowing, employers still subsidize driving over transit by a margin of six-to-one.
  • Bombardier Transit, a multinational company headquartered in Germany, received $3 million to create a high-speed “demonstration fossil fuel passenger locomotive” in the village of Clinton, NY
  • The state of Wisconsin received $5,843,878 in Highway Planning and Construction funds from FY 2000-2009 for improvements near the General Motors Janesville Assembly Plant. GM closed the plant this year, putting more than 2,000 people out of work.

In the coming weeks, transportation stories will appear regularly on the site. We’ll present information graphically whenever possible, using interactive maps, charts and visualizations. And we’ll post relevant reports and documents from government and other sources. We hope you’ll use the site to make your own discoveries.

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  • John Thacker

    Most of what’s included in SubsidyScope are earmarks, but not subsidies to the particular states. (Questioning the fitness of the formula used in SAFETEA-LU is another issue.) They may be subsidies to particular towns within a state, or to contractors, though.

  • John Thacker

    The Bureau of Transportation Statistics has a publication series on federal subsidies to passenger transportation.

    The USDOT’s Highway Statistics series has useful information on funding. (Search around for other interesting information.)

    At the *Federal* level, mass transit is heavily subsidized, and it is subsidized largely by drivers. (One-sixth of gas tax revenue is diverted to mass transit.) The situation at the State and especially the Local level is quite different.

  • John Thacker

    “From fiscal years 2000 through 2008, the government spent far more on highways than on other modes. Highways received 76 percent of the direct expenditures; public transit came in a distant second at 16 percent.”

    Odd that you compare Alaska to California on a per-resident basis, but you don’t compare highways to transit on a per-user or per-passenger mile basis.

    More importantly, you’ve included everything in regular transportation bill (SAFETEA-LU) as “subsidies.” see? That doesn’t make sense. True, many of these are earmarks that direct funds towards specific projects instead of letting the state DOTs decide, which can be inefficient. But none of these represent extra funding or subsidy to those states– all of it comes out of their allocations. And their allocations are set by formula. (States argue about what should go into the formula and how it should be weighted, though.)

    In addition, almost all federal transportation spending (not state or local) comes from the Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for by user fees on gas tax and tolls. (The exception is in the stimulus and in the “emergency” transfer of General Funds in 2008.)

    That means that these aren’t really “subsidies,” since they’re paid for by drivers. (The mass transit funding is also paid out of gas taxes, so it could be viewed as a subsidy; others will argue that better mass transit helps drivers by reducing congestion.) They may be inappropriate expenditures, but if they didn’t exist, the same amount of Highway Trust Fund money would be spend in each state.