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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Numbers Game: The Politics of the Federal Surface Transportation Program


In 2003, the federal government spent about $37 billion on the highway and transit networks that comprise the surface transportation system. With so much money at stake it is no surprise that expenditure decisions are subject to intense debate. Settling past conflicts has required the development of elaborate compromises, from the transit penny in 1982 to minimum-guaranteed-return rules in more recent years. Conflicts over expenditure decisions continue to resurface, particularly during the debates over program reauthorization.

This dissertation examines federal surface transportation expenditure policy. It includes both historical and quantitative analyses. The historical analysis seeks to understand how the current expenditure policy rules came into being and how they have evolved from the 1890’s to the present. The quantitative analysis focuses on the period from 1990 to the present. It examines the spatial pattern of highway and transit expenditures among the states, investigates geographic redistribution in the highway program (the donor state conflict), and determines whether these expenditure patterns can be explained by political, transportation, and socio-demographic variables. It also seeks to understand whether these patterns have changed in the years following passage of ISTEA and TEA-21.

The historical analysis shows that political and/or institutional inertia has limited the opportunity for significant policy change. Policies developed to address particular problems at very specific moments in time have been retained long after their original rationales have disappeared. The Senate has traditionally defended the policy status quo, and its institutional structure has been an important factor in the development of federal policy. The quantitative analysis shows that the relationships between highway expenditures and highway use and between transit expenditures and transit use are moving in opposite directions. The geographic redistribution of federal highway dollars is unrelated to either the use or extent of a state’s highway system. The analysis also shows that a state’s earmark dollars are more closely related to political representation variables than are its formula dollars. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of policy change, ISTEA and TEA-21 have produced only modest changes in any of these patterns.

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