Many Americans believe that drivers pay the full cost of the roads they use through gas taxes and other user fees. That has never been true, and it is less true now than at any other point in modern times.
Today, general taxes paid by all taxpayers cover nearly as much of the cost of building and maintaining highways as the gas tax and other fees paid by drivers. The purchasing power of gasoline taxes has declined as a result of inflation, improved vehicle fuel economy, and the recent stagnation in driving. As a result, so-called “user fees” cover a shrinking share of transportation costs.
The time has come for policy-makers to recognize something that has been true for years, but is especially true today: we all pay for America’s roads.
Short-term funding patches – even modest increases in the gas tax – won’t change that. Nor will they be enough to enable America to achieve a 21st century transportation system. Doing so will require bold rethinking of how we raise transportation money and how we spend it in the years to come.
Roads don’t pay for themselves.
All of us bear the costs of roads.
Governments spend more non-user tax dollars on highways than on transit, bicycling, walking and passenger rail travel, combined.
People who walk and bicycle pay their fair share for use of the transportation system.
Americans lead increasingly multi-modal lives. Most are not “drivers” or “non-drivers” but people who use a variety of modes and pay for transportation in a variety of ways.
Solving the transportation funding crisis may or may not require higher gas taxes. It certainly requires policy-makers to use fresh thinking. They can begin by taking three steps:
1) Recognize the reality that all Americans now bear the cost of roads by making transportation policy choices based on which investments deliver the most benefits for the public, regardless of mode. The needs of Americans who mainly ride transit, bicycle, walk or use other transportation services should bear no less weight than the needs of automobiles in transportation decision-making.
2) Treat revenue sources and investment decisions as separate. Transportation agencies have often prioritized new highways of dubious merit over pressing maintenance and repair projects, as well as important investments in transit and other modes of transportation. By subjecting all transportation spending to rigorous evaluation and prioritization – regardless of the source of revenue – public officials can ensure that taxpayer money is spent most effectively.
3) Move toward a sensible pricing system for transportation. Taxes on drivers have been seen primarily as a way to raise money for transportation. But they can fill a more important purpose by being used to recoup some of the costs drivers impose on society and improve the efficiency of the transportation system. Congestion pricing, parking pricing, pollution-based charges and similar charges can encourage transportation choices that deliver the greatest benefits to or impose the least costs on society – even if every penny of revenue from those fees is returned to taxpayers or used for purposes other than transportation.