Friday, October 30, 2015

Who Really Pays For Our Roads?

Get into an argument with a driver about a cyclist's right to use the road, and at some point expect to hear something like this: "Bikers don't pay for the roads. You don't pay gas taxes. You don't pay license fees. Bikers are leeches on the roads that are built and paid for by car drivers."

If that particular "argument" doesn't sound familiar, then just try to imagine it with a bunch of cuss words and epithets thrown into the mix. Then it might ring a bell.

Well, there was a great article in The Atlantic that appeared this week that takes a look at who the real leeches on the system are, and which any cyclist should really read: The True Costs of Driving.

Did I say any cyclist should read it? Heck - many of us probably already knew or at least suspected as much. Maybe I should say every driver should read it.

Much of the info in that article is based on a study published earlier this year from the Frontier Group and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Who Pays for the Roads? It's also well worth checking out.

The basic gist of the Atlantic article, and the U.S. PIRG study, is that gas taxes and other fees directly associated with driving don't even come close to paying the cost of maintaining our existing road infrastructure, much less the cost of new road construction. Those taxes and fees merely give drivers (and even many public policymakers) the false notion that drivers are somehow paying their own way and therefore deserve a privileged position in transportation policy decisions.

Here are some notable excerpts:

"The amount that road users pay through gas taxes now accounts for less than half of what's spent to maintain and expand the road system. The resulting shortfall is made up from other sources of tax revenue at the state and local levels, generated by drivers and non-drivers alike. This subsidizing of car ownership costs the typical household about $1,100 per year -- over and above the costs of gas taxes, tolls, and other user fees."

Understand that that amount is paid by everyone - including those who don't even drive or own cars. The article goes on to show that the amount of that "driver subsidy" has been steadily increasing since the 1950s, and at an accelerated rate in the last 15 - 20 years.

"The huge subsidy to car use has another equally important implication: because user fees are set too low, and because, in essence, people are being paid to drive more, there is excess demand for the road system. If roads were priced to recover even the cost of maintenance, driving would be noticeably more expensive, and people would have much stronger incentives to drive less, and to use other forms of transportation, such as transit and cycling."

That point is particularly relevant in the current climate where even suggesting the possible need for increasing the gas tax is political suicide. An impossibility. The article states, "What the reaction to this hike really signals is that drivers don't value the road system highly enough to pay for the cost of keeping it in operation and maintaining it. Drivers will make use of roads, especially new ones, but only if the cost of construction is subsidized by others."

It is also important to note that because many of the costs associated with driving are hidden in ways that we often don't think about, the true cost of the driving subsidy is actually much higher than the direct dollar amount stated.

Hidden costs? Like what? Well, what about "free" parking? Consider the cost/value of real estate in any city or community, then think about how much of it is given over to the huge parking lots in front of just about any retail center. Such "free parking" isn't really free, but it has become an absolute necessity -- one of the costs of doing business -- and it is paid for by all of us in the form of higher prices for consumer goods, groceries, and more. Many cities still offer free on-street parking as well which should be counted as another "giveaway" and part of the driving subsidy.

There are other costs as well, that are more difficult to quantify in dollar amounts. Congestion. Pollution. Public safety. The shrill and very vocal anti-cycling activists out there, who stand in the way of bicycle infrastructure projects, often throw around bogus "public safety" arguments, saying that cyclists are a threat to safety -- particularly to the very young and the very old. But the fact is that, after a number of years where driving fatalities had been declining, the number of people killed in cars and by cars is now growing. According to recent statistics, the number of people killed in the U.S. in traffic crashes may hit 40,000 this year for the first time since 2007. The number of pedestrians killed by cars in 2013 was more than 4,700 -- many of whom were on sidewalks and in crosswalks. On the other hand, the number of pedestrians killed by bicycles is so small that it's difficult to even find statistics on it. In New York City, according to their Department of Transportation, from 2005 - 2013, the total number was four people (and all 4 probably made major news there). Compared to the rest of the nation, NYC was apparently a bloodbath of bicycle-inflicted carnage.

Next time you find yourself in one of those arguments about a cyclist's right to the road, or when some of your lawmakers start complaining about the cost of "unnecessary" bicycle infrastructure, or they start throwing around bogus arguments about the "proper" use of public funds in transportation projects, be sure to remind people who really pays for the roads. We all do.


  1. The linked article was a little convoluted and I may be missing the point ..but Basically roads are very, very, very expensive to build and maintain and they are heavily subsidized by us all but the majority of these subsidies are to a great degree hidden.
    Vehicle and fuel tax are a token contribution but only a token. So that when a road user (in this case we generally mean driver) criticizes expenditure on Public transport and/or facilities for bicycle transportation or pedestrian use as being unnecessary and unfair subsidies they are displaying massive ignorance and bias.
    Nothing new there then ...
    Sorry I know the article is actually more far reaching with the implications of road building, use and the hiding/disguising of costs pushing negative changes in a wide ranging way and a comment can't do it justice ..I'm just totally frustrated living in a great city where at times it feels like if you are a pedestrian or cyclist you have a target on you and if anyone gets a bulls eye the only response will be that you receive the car-wash bill & a fine and then your mangled remains will be thrown in the stocks ....

  2. But the roads are part of the supply chain that brings every product you use to your town. Even if you are car-free, you rely on them.

    Building a train system might be an alternative -- but would it scale properly... and what about small towns

    1. I think you missed the point. Yes we all rely on the roads -- cyclists included -- and we ALL pay for them (car or no car). But transportation policy tilts all the balance in favor of drivers of cars -- ignoring and even marginalizing all others. And the argument that gets thrown in the faces of cyclists again and again is that they don't pay for the roads and therefore have no right to use them. The study and the article referenced absolutely refute such arguments.

    2. You are right you just caught me in a crosspatch mood ...sorry about that

  3. Another important thing to keep in mind is that gas taxes are typically only used (at both the federal, state, and local levels) to pay for HIGHWAY construction and maintenance. And even if there is federal funding subsidizing a state highway project, there is still "local match" which typically starts at 20%, and can increase based on the funding requirements.

    Most local streets and roads (and local match payments) are paid for by the municipality that they are in. Federal and state gas tax revenues are not eligible to fund these projects, and will come from other revenue sources, usually property taxes and sales taxes. Occasionally, if the project is very large, a voter approved bond or sales tax increase is used to generate funds.

    As far as I remember, all residents pay property or sales tax in some form, in every state, county, and city. So the cost of local road building and maintenance is supported by ALL residents, not just drivers.