Title

OUTLAY RATES AND THE POLITICS OF CAPITAL VERSUS OPERATING SUBSIDIES IN FEDERAL TRANSIT FINANCE

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date

1998

Subject Area

economics - finance, mode - mass transit

Keywords

Transit, Subsidies, Public transit, Outlay rates, Operating subsidies, Mass transit, Local transit, Grant aid, Federal aid

Abstract

"Outlay rate" is a measure of the lapsed time between the obligation of federal funds for some purpose and the actual drawdown, or expenditure, of those funds. Outlay rates are an important, though often unspoken, reason for the gradual withdrawal of federal operating support of public transit. Rationales for reducing and/or eliminating federal support of transit operations are examined, overall capital and operating outlay rates for a sample of transit operators in California are measured, and possible causes and effects of federal grant outlay rates are discussed. On average, transit operators do, in fact, expend operating grants more quickly than capital grants. However, the overall size of the grant is actually a better predictor of slow outlays than grant purpose. Although the revenues generated by unexpended transit grants represent real revenues to the treasury, the goal of the federal transit program clearly is not simply to maximize such revenues. Evidence from other studies suggests that strict separation of capital and operating grants contributes to less efficient, overcapitalized transit systems, and an emphasis on capital grants may cost the federal treasury in the form of reduced tax revenues resulting from the lower economic multiplier of capital versus operating grants. Thus, it is unlikely that society benefits from a "float-driven" federal transit subsidy policy. Because federal transit grants seek to generate an array of social and economic benefits far broader than interest earned from the float from unexpended grants, the costs of the current capital-oriented or possible capital-only programs should be more systematically considered.