In a Jan. 4th DC.StreetsBlog entry, Tanya Snyder wrote, “You’ve heard it a thousand times from the highway lobby: Roads pay for themselves through ‘user fees’ — a.k.a. gas taxes and tolls — whereas transit is a drain on the taxpayer. They use this argument to push for new roads, instead of transit, as fiscally prudent investments.” But according to a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group: ‘Do Roads Pay For Themselves?’, this is not the case. The authors calculate that road construction has taken $600 billion out of America’s public purse since the dawn of the interstate system.
The report notes that:
- Gasoline taxes aren’t “user fees” in any meaningful sense of the term – The amount of money a particular driver pays in gasoline taxes bears little relationship to his or her use of roads funded by gas taxes.
- State gas taxes are often not “extra” fees – Most states exempt gasoline from the state sales tax, diverting much of the money that would have gone into a state’s general fund to roads.
- Federal gas taxes have typically not been devoted exclusively to highways – Since its 1934 inception, Congress only temporarily dedicated gas tax revenues fully to highways during the brief 17-year period beginning in 1956. This was at the start of construction for the Interstate highway network, a project completed in the 1990s.
- Highways don’t pay for themselves — Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called “user fees” by $600 billion (2005 dollars), representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways.
- Highways “pay for themselves” less today than ever. Currently, highway “user fees” pay only about half the cost of building and maintaining the nation’s network of highways, roads and streets.
- These figures fail to include the many costs imposed by highway construction on non-users of the system, including damage to the environment and public health and encouragement of sprawling forms of development that impose major costs on the environment and government finances.