NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Roads vs. Mass Transit

February 1, 1996

Competition for taxpayers' funds between special interest lobbies promoting road building and social engineers favoring mass transit has resulted in taxpayers funding both -- although roads pay their way through taxes while mass transit has required increasing subsidies.

Today, more than $900 billion is spent annually in the United States on surface road and rail transportation.

  • The largest portion is spent privately on automobiles and freight, but government spends more than $70 billion annually on roads.
  • By contrast, nationwide operating expenses for mass transit -- train, subway and buses -- is $18 billion.
  • Only about one-third of this amount is covered by commuter fares, with nearly two-thirds coming from taxes.
  • Federal grants for transit construction and equipment have grown from $3.0 billion in 1990 to $4.6 billion fiscal 1995.

Supporters of road building successfully lobbied last year for passage of the National Highway System bill, which makes nearly 170,000 miles of roads eligible for federal aid.

  • Opponents of additional road building, such as the American Public Transit Association, argue that motorists gain $345 billion in benefits while paying $44 billion in taxes -- a net $301 billion in public subsidy.
  • However, the Highway Users Federation and the American Automobile Association calculate that motorists are net losers by $38 billion annually, paying motoring-related taxes of $114 billion for only $76 billion in services.

An alternative to continuing conflict over transit versus highway funds is building privately-funded and managed toll roads. State turnpikes with revenues of $5 billion annually are also ripe for privatization.

Source: Peter Samuel, "The Transportation Lobby: The Politics of Highway and Transit," Organization Trends, February 1996, Capital Research Center, 727 15th Street, NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20004, (202) 393-2600.


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