What? a sales tax to build freeways? Why yes, it’s true — sales, and other general funds are often used to build roads and freeways. Though this particular tax (the prop 400 one-half percent general sales tax) supposedly goes to pay for all sorts of transportation projects — including light rail, local street improvements, buses, roads and freeways — the largest amount goes to build or expand limited-access freeways. These freeways in particular aren’t even open to bicyclists; but, along with everybody else, must pay the sales tax. Oh, and it’s not as though bicyclists are left out; bicycle and pedestrian improvements combined get 2% of the funds.
What about fuel and other specific use taxes (like the VLT… for more, see Road Taxes)? They’re simply not enough. Automobility does not generate enough tax revenue to sustain itself, thus these subsidies to drivers paid from general funds. Not to mention any of the litany of externalities caused by driving — free parking, pollution, mayhem, etc.
Some Valley freeway projects will be delayed up to five years by a sharp downturn in revenues prompted in part by the recession, regional transportation officials say.
Proposition 400, approved by Maricopa County voters in 2004, imposed a countywide half-cent sales tax for 20 years to fund regional transit projects – freeways, streets, buses and light rail.
40 YEARS of sales taxes to build freeways
Here are a few of the ins-and-outs of this tax, as you can see it started in 1985, was renewed for another 20 year run starting in 2005 — in other words it is more or less permanent; see e.g. this AzRepublic article (my emphasis added):
Q: What does Proposition 400 do?
A: It would extend for another 20 years a half-cent transportation sales tax in Maricopa County that was first approved in 1985 to fund freeway construction. Without voter approval for an extension, the tax expires at the end of 2005.
Q: How much would be spent on each type of transportation in the MAG plan?
A: Of the $15.8 billion dedicated to program funding, $9 billion, or 57 percent, would fund freeways; $2.7 billion, or 17 percent, would fund the regional bus system; $2.3 billion, or 15 percent, would fund light-rail expansion; and $1.5 billion, or 9 percent, would fund arterial streets.
The remaining 2 percent would fund air-quality programs, bike and pedestrian routes and planning activities.
The 2010 Five-year update
Apparently there is a mandated audit to be performed every five years by the AZ Auditor General, here is the detailed report. The AZ Republic did a news story timed with its release, though it didn’t say much.
The detailed report has some pie charts that don’t exactly match up with the Q&A; for example it shows, in percentages exactly 3 components: Freeways 56.2, Transit 33.3, and Arterials 10.5% One guesses that the 2 percent catch-all (which includes bike and ped planning) is snuck in somewhere. The report gives no details on the ancillary activities. Oh, and I learned a new acronym: RARF, the Regional Area Road Fund is where the prop 400 sales tax monies go. (the HURF, Highway User Revenue Fund, is where motor fuel taxes and vlt goes).
The light rail came off pretty well; noting the thing was built on schedule and just slightly under-budget. Peer-city comparisons were generally favorable.