Another myth promulgated by people who support roads over transit is that transit has to be subsidized while motor vehicles pay their way. “Transit, particularly rail transit, is very expensive to build, operate, and maintain. While driving is pretty much self-supporting through user fees, transit must be heavily subsidized by taxpayers.”

Roads for motor vehicles are anything but self supporting. For the state and federal highway system (from the interstates all the way down to some arterial streets that many people don’t realize are designated highways), gas taxes pay for roughly half of constructing those roads. Where does the other half come from? Out of our pockets, from the general fund, through income taxes and other fees. You may have heard that the federal highway trust fund is out of money, but highways are still being built. How is that possible? Well, money keeps getting dumped into transportation to make up for the lack of gas tax income. Though it is now down to 50%, if the gas tax is not raised, it will be a continually declining percentage until nearly all of our transportation funds come out of the general fund.

So if the gas tax doesn’t pay for maintaining roads, what does? Nothing! Very little money is being spent on maintenance, and our roads have deteriorated in a way that is obvious to anyone who drives, or rides a bike, or even walks. Politicians give lip service to fixing roads, but when it comes to spending money, it is all about big new roads and ribbon-cutting opportunities. Or even big new transit projects and ribbon-cutting opportunities.

For local roads, those paid for by counties and cities, very little comes from the gas tax. Counties and cities in California do not have gas taxes nor income taxes (though they do in some other states). So where does the money come from? Sales tax, and out of the general fund, which is mostly property tax. Self supporting? Hardly. Counties and cities do get some state and federal funds, some of which comes from gas taxes, but it usually is only for new construction (not that it has to be, but that is what is asked for and given), and it is a small part of what it takes to build and maintain local roads.

And then there are the externalties of a car-centric transportation system. Climate change, air pollution, sprawl, unemployment or underemployment for people who can’t afford to get to jobs, death and severe injury on our roads ($80 billion per year, for just injuries, not including fatalities), high portions of both family income and family wealth devoted to just one purpose, the car, deteriorating infrastructure, foreign wars for oil (if you think the war in Iraq was about freedom rather than oil and profit for Halliburton and Dick Cheney, you haven’t been paying attention).

All forms of transportation get some subsidy. Motor vehicles, bicycles, buses, trains, airplanes (the subsidy here is probably the highest percentage of any), all get subsidized. Though rail freight is subsidized far less than other modes, which is why it seems to not be competetive with road and air, when it would be if the playing field were level. The real question is whether the subsidies result in a transportation system that serves all citizens, and not just those who choose to drive or are forced to drive by a lack of choice. My opinion is that we have our priorities all wrong.

So why do we still keep spending money we don’t have on highways and roads, rather than a rational transportation system? The “asphalt lobby” as it is called. This is a network of engineers, construction companies, government workers, and politicians who profit incredibly from continuing to spend our money on their pet projects. AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) and ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) are probaby the most prominent proponents, but there are organizations and lobbyists too numerous to list. OK, I can’t resist: the Asphalt Paving Alliance, the Asphalt Institute, the National Asphalt Paving Association. Not to mention: the American Concrete Pavement Association, the American Concrete Institute.

Time to stop!

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  1. […] this one is much more true that the myths I addressed (Myth: housing more expensive in dense areas, Myth: driving is supported by user fees). But it is worthwhile analyzing why this is […]

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About Dan Allison

Dan Allison is a Safe Routes to School Coordinator in the Sacramento area. Dan dances and backpacks, as much as possible.

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