Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The True Costs of Driving - We All Pay for Roads

In his recent article "The True Costs of Driving," Joe Cortright of The Atlantic summarizes a report published earlier this year by two U.S. public interest groups that presents some uncomfortable truths about the growing shortfall in funding for U.S. highways and roads. Of interest to advocates for smart multimodal transportation alternatives for Fairfax County, Who Pays for Roads?: How the “Users Pay” Myth Gets in the Way of Solving America’s Transportation Problems confirms, as Cortright writes, “a very basic fact of transportation that’s widely disbelieved: Drivers don’t come close to paying for the costs of the roads they use.”

In fact, road users’ gas taxes now account for less than half of what’s spent to maintain and expand U.S. road systems, and the resulting shortfall is made up from other sources of tax revenue at state and local levels, generated by drivers and non-drivers alike. According to the study, car ownership for the typical household is now being subsidized by $1,100 per year (over and above the costs of gas taxes, tolls, and other user fees).

The Cumulative Difference Between Public Spending on Highways and 
How Much Drivers Pay to Use Them (courtesy of The Frontier Group/U.S. PIRG

The huge—and generally hidden—subsidy for car use has an important consequence: too low user fees (gas tax, tolls, etc.), in effect, pay people to drive more, creating greater demand for the road system. Cortright notes that if roads were priced to recover even the cost of maintenance (and my guess is that the recently claimed planned $17 toll for I-66 will still fall short of this), 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.

The study has many other important findings and examines the implications of funding shortfalls for traffic congestion, road repair, and new highways.

Cortright adds that the problem of pricing roads correctly is one that will grow in importance in the years ahead because improved vehicle fuel efficiency and more electric vehicles will further diminish gas tax revenues and because autonomous self-driving vehicles and the business model of companies like Uber take advantage of paying much less for the use of the road system than it costs to operate.

Cortright notes that these same issues can be raised about public-transit, biking, and walking projects but writes that a key difference with these other forms of transportation is that they arguably come with bigger social benefits—lower congestion, less pollution, greater safety, and make transportation available to those who don’t own or can’t operate a motor vehicle.

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