Monday, May 31, 2010

Whose Roads? Who Pays?

You’ll often hear or read some ill-informed person claim that cyclists don’t have the right to use public roadways because they don’t pay gas taxes. I suppose one could simply call them a fascist and be done with it (and be correct), but more reasonable and effective arguments are available.
First and foremost, use of public rights-of-way is a basic liberty, not a privilege of taxpayers.

But even if it were not a basic liberty, cyclists (and pedestrians) are certainly paying their way (and then some).

“User fees” such as gas taxes, vehicle taxes and fees, and tolls, account for only 60% of transportation funding; the other 40% is from property taxes, bonds, general funds, and other taxes, all of which are paid (directly or indirectly) by non-motorists. According to Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute,

“On average, local and regional governments spend $300-500 annually per automobile in general taxes on local roads and traffic services, averaging more than 6¢ per mile driven on local roads. Only 0.7¢ of this is paid through vehicle user charges, meaning that driving is subsidized through general taxes by about 5.6¢ per mile on local roads.”

Most gas tax money goes to widening roadways to accommodate more cars (thereby encouraging more driving) and to maintaining roads. Virtually all wear and tear on roads is due to motor vehicles (especially large trucks), not cyclists, and certainly not pedestrians. The cost of accommodating cyclists and pedestrians is generally less than 2% of the total cost of a road. Non-motorists therefore overpay for their use of roads, while motorists underpay.

Those who shop by bike, walk or transit pay gas taxes indirectly. Shipping costs, which are included in the costs of virtually all goods, include gas taxes.

Of course, most cyclists DO buy gasoline, since most own and drive internal combustion vehicles. To say one must always use the vehicle that makes the taxpaying necessary is an absurd trap. "You have no choice! You must drive a car because you paid the tax!" This argument also implies that those who pay more in taxes have greater rights than those who pay less. Those who drive electric cars might similarly be accused of driving on roads without paying “their fair share.” An electric car owner would only pay about one-third as much in “user fees” as the owner of an internal combustion engine vehicle.