Republican Platform Slams Brakes on Transit Funding

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By Stephanie Beasley

July 19 — It's time to overturn the Obama administration's vision of investing in public transit options for densely populated urban areas and apply that revenue to projects that would expand the nation's roads and bridges, Donald Trump's Republican Party proposed.

A final platform released July 18 contends that the federal transit program, which draws funding from the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), distorts the trust fund's original purpose. Further, the program prioritizes the transportation needs of a few large urban areas over those of the majority of the country's population who rely primarily on cars, according to the platform.

“One fifth of (HTF's) funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities,” the document reads. “Additional funds are used for bike-sharing programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping, and historical renovations.”

Not So Fast

It's an old argument and one that is now inaccurate since the HTF has been nearly insolvent for years and a large portion of federal highway and transit funding comes from the general fund, rather than motor fuels taxes, said Robert Puentes, president and chief executive officer of the Eno Center for Transportation.

A five-year highway and transit program reauthorization enacted last year (Pub. L. No. 114-94), highlighted in the platform as a Republican victory, also was funded by several non-transportation-related pay-fors such as revenue from revoking passports of tax delinquent individuals and tapping into surplus Federal Reserve.

The proposal to halt federal transit funding continues to be kicked around among Republicans. A recent example is a bill (H.R. 1551) introduced by Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) last year that would remove the federal transit program from the Highway Trust Fund.

The anti-transit funding position has not yet been adopted by Trump, the party's standard bearer and a New York real estate mogul who has made a large portion of his earnings from developing high-rises in Manhattan. Trump has made remarks in the past calling for greater investment in public transportation and passenger rail, including intercity high-speed rail, though he has not specified how he would propose to pay for those projects.

Trump is slated to make remarks ahead of the close of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21.

Amtrak on Cutting Board

According to the platform, rail funding should come from the private sector. Instead of making American taxpayers support the “extremely expensive railroad” the government should hand over control of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor—its most profitable line—to private operators, the platform said. Likewise, investment in intercity, high-speed rail should come from the private sector.

Conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation have long called for eliminating federal subsidies for Amtrak. And Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), former chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, accused the Obama administration of botching federal efforts to initiate high-speed rail projects during a recent hearing (See previous story, 07/15/16).

Washington Versus States

The platform's hard policy lines are not surprising, especially considering that proposals circulated during election season are often more extreme than what can be feasibly negotiated and legislated during the governing process, said Stephen Davis, director of communications at Transportation For America.

“Not only is there not that much support for this idea in Congress, but once you get down to the state and local level, a lot of standard ideological or party divisions on this question we see in Washington really starts to disappear,” he said. “For example, scores of business leaders of all political stripes make it clear that they depend on their transit networks in the same way they depend on their roads.”

State and city leaders know they have to continue improving their transit service to stay competitive and attract talent, Davis said.

Still, Puentes said the Republican Party is right to re-evaluate the role of the federal government in an era of limited funding. And the lion's share of decisions about which transportation projects receive funding happen at the state level these days, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at

For More Information

The text of the 2016 Republican platform is available online here: .

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