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Surface Transportation Bill Flat Funds Bureau of Transportation Statistics but Strengthens Autonomy

By Steve Pierson posted 12-07-2015 16:17


After several delays and short-term extensions, Congress agreed on a five-year transportation bill covering roads and transit systems. The $300 billion bill determines the budget for the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), the funding for which comes from the Highway Trust Fund (rather than the annual appropriations bills covering the other primary statistical agencies, which are still waiting to know their FY16 funding levels.)

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, H.R. 22, freezes the BTS budget at $26 million for FY16-FY20 despite support expressed in an ASA-organized letter signed by 20 organizationsincluding AAA, the ASA, the American Trucking Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commercefor the Administration's proposal to increase the BTS budget to $29 million. $26 million is the same level of the BTS budget in FY05, which means BTS will see a 30% decline in purchasing power from FY05 to FY20 due to inflation. The flat funding for BTS is a reflection of the funding challenges for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which is funded by a federal fuel tax and has faced solvency issues for many years. Indeed, a Senate bill last year zeroed out funding for BTS from the HTF and this Congress's Senate-passed bill transferred funding of BTS to general funds (the same way the other primary statistical agencies are funded.)

The FAST Act also strengthens BTS's autonomy, which is especially important since it was transferred from the now defunct Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) to the Secretary of Transportation's office in 2014, though not as much as the ASA and others sought. The FAST Act contains provisions for BTS to have strengthened autonomy over its publications and IT. In a section titled, "Independence of bureau", the publication autonomy provision reads, "The Director shall not be required to obtain the approval of any other officer or employee of the Department with respect to the collection or analysis of any information; or prior to publication, to obtain the approval of any other officer or employee of the United States Government with respect to the substance of any statistical technical reports or press releases lawfully prepared by the Director."

For IT, the bill directs "The Department Chief Information Officer shall consult with the Director to ensure decisions related to information technology guarantee the protection of the confidentiality of information provided solely for statistical purposes, in accordance with the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act of 2002 (44 U.S.C. 3501 note; Public Law 107–347)."

Besides publications and IT, the ASA and others had urged BTS have control over its budget (Lipinski 7/10/15; Thune 7/15/15.) The FAST Act budget autonomy provision is disappointing in that does not provide budget autonomy and uses ambiguous language, "The Director shall have a significant role in the disposition and allocation of the authorized budget of the Bureau, including all hiring, grants, cooperative agreements, and contracts awarded by the Bureau to carry out this section; and the disposition and allocation of amounts paid to the Bureau for cost-reimbursable projects."

Besides the importance of complete budget autonomy for the independence of the agency and the objectivity of its products, budget autonomy would help with BTS's bottom line. As explained in the Lipinski and Thune letters, "we understand the now defunct Research and Innovative Technology Administration used significant portions of BTS’s authorized Highway Trust Fund (HTF) funding for its operations...," a practice that seems to continue under RITA's successor. While requiring BTS to cover its overhead is sensible, the amount should be transparent and should be a small fraction of an agency's budget. For example, the overhead for ERS, NASS, and NCHS is reported through a working capital fund and, when the funds were established a few years ago, Congress appropriated additional funding for the agencies so that the agencies' programs wouldn't be impacted. The ASA will continue to work with others to improve BTS's budget autonomy. 

A larger budget for the BTSwhich could be partially achieved by BTS having access to more of its authorized HTF funding—is important for many reasons, not least because BTS data help to inform billions of dollars in public and private transportation decisions. For the federal, state, and local government, the data ensure better use of taxpayer dollars and smarter, more efficient government. The private sector also use the data to inform where to place manufacturing plants or distribution centers and to improve their operations. Despite the importance of its data, the BTS has lacked the funding to do the intercity passenger travel survey, which was last done in 1995, and the vehicle inventory and use survey, last done in 2002. Its constrained budget also makes it difficult for BTS to be as nimble as it could be to develop products to respond to new trends and take advantage of advances like Big Data. 

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