From time to time, we will see a recurring theme to the effect of “bicyclists don’t pay gas tax so they don’t deserve to use the road”. (for a good roundup of this and other similar issues see bicycledriving.org) There are certain elements of truth to this — bicyclists don’t purchase gas, it’s true. And there’s also an implication that motorist are “paying their way”, but that’s just not true. Gas taxes (and other direct taxes on automobiles) nowhere near cover the costs of building, maintaining, and operating roads. And that’s not to mention the (much larger) costs associated with death/mayhem and pollution impacts on human health and the environment. And none of that is to mention other more intangible costs like defending sea lanes worldwide; and propping up unsavory regimes so that oil can continue to flow freely.
Funding for local roads (the roads that both cyclists and motorists use) are paid for heavily through state and local tax general funds — not user fess like gasoline taxes. Cyclists are paying their way, just like everybody else.
Most/much of the direct user fees that motorists pay do go to fund freeways (limited access highways). These roads are used exclusively (with minor exceptions) by motorists — and yet even then the fees are not high enough, and have to be supplemented from other sources, like general sales taxes.
Specifics vary depending on location but the general theme is similar throughout the US.
What follows are specifics as we do things here in Arizona, and specifically Maricopa County and the Phoenix Metro area.
Arizona levies two taxes directly upon motorists and the proceeds are termed the “HURF” (Highway User’s something Fund). The two souces are; motor fuel taxes, and VLT (Vehicle License Tax, a fee paid yearly based on the value of a motor vehicle).
Because the rate on gasoline is levied per gallon, 18.5 cents per gallon, and hasn’t changed since 199?, the amounts available to the HURF have been dwindling.
usgovernmentspending.com has some good charts of, e.g. ARizona state spending broken down in categories like education, police, transportation, etc.
Freeway Sales Tax
Maricopa county levies a 0.5% SALES tax to build freeways. First approved in 1985, it was set to expire in 2005 but extended for another 20 years by “Proposition 400”. The split was more favorable to public transit, but still heavily favors freeway spending. The most vociferous opposition came from those who specifically thought that not enough of the money would be used for freeways, and in particular hated that any monies would be spent on light-rail. See e.g. Prop. 400 foe wants to stop light rail., Arizona Republic, Sept 23, 2004. The Arizona Republic’s Prop400QampA mentions the funding breakdowns: 66% goes toward building roads;
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.
I note that bicyclists do not ride bikes on freeways (in fact, bicycles are banned from freeways in the metro area).
So, the freeway sales tax is just another externality of automobility — drivers not paying their way.
City Transportation Taxes
Several cities have dedicated sales taxes for transportation, among them are Tempe and Phoenix. Tempe’s tax is 0.5% and was passed by voters in 1997. Phoenix city voters approved a large increase in their rate in 2015, Proposition 104. The rate was increased from 0.4% to 0.7% and now sunsets in 35 years (2051, or something). The city funds are more heavily tilted towards public transit with the largest single piece going towards light rail expansion. A modest fraction going to street “improvements” and police;
Penney Tax for Tank Leak Cleanup Insurance
One penney of the state’s 18 cents has been directed not to road bulding but to insure/fund cleanup when underground storage tanks leak [I’m not actually sure about that; need to verify… perhaps it’s on top of the 18 cents?]. I can’t unwind all this but there seems to be some cost-shifting and classic cases of socialized costs (the monies to clean up leaks) versus privatized profits (from selling the product). In any event, it’s money not available to build or maintain roads. The Arizona Republic did a long and deep history of the program Gasoline tax debate: Corporate welfare or necessary evil? on the occasion of the legislature possibly extending the program again. Fuel leaks cause devastating health and environmental problems and are very expensive to clean up.
Background on Federal Tax
The federal levy on fuel is much the same story — it is based solely on a per-gallon charge of 18.4 cents per gallon gasoline THAT HASN’T GONE UP SINCE !993! Of course, the price level has gone up a lot since then, so the amount of real dollars keeps falling. If 18.4 was the “right” amount in 1993, the rate should be raised to ~ 28 cents/gal (2011 dollars). These missing dollars of course still get spent, replace from other sources like general funds; funds that everybody pays, not just drivers.
A minority of the fuel tax funds (about 15%) is spent on mass transit, and 0.1 cents of it is spent on cleanup for leaking underground fuel storage tanks.
Historical gasoline fuel tax rates from Table 1 CRS report:
|Rate of Tax in cents per gallon||Period to Which Applicable|
|1.0||June 21, 1932, to June 16, 1933|
|1.5||June 17, 1933, to December 31, 1933|
|1.0||January 1, 1934, to June 30, 1940|
|1.5||July 1, 1940, to October 31, 1951|
|2.0||November 1, 1951, to June 30, 1956|
|3.0||July 1, 1956, to September 30, 1959|
|4.0||October 1, 1959, to March 31, 1983|
|9.0||April 1, 1983, to December 31, 1986|
|9.1||January 1, 1987, to August 31, 1990 (a)|
|9.0||September 1, 1990, to November 30, 1990|
|14.1||December 1, 1990 , to September 30, 1993|
|18.4||October 1, 1993, to December 31, 1995 (b)|
|18.3||January 1, 1996 (c), to September 30, 1997|
|18.4||October 1, 1997 (d), to March 31, 2005|
There are also some excise taxes aimed at heavy trucks — based on the obvious theory that heavier vehicles cause more wear and tear on roads and bridges.
National / International reports
The USPIRG has a white paper / report: Do Roads Pay for Themselves?
“Fees” are not connected to “use” – 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—unlike other true user fees such as admission fees for state parks or turnpike tolls.
Drivers on local streets and roads, for example, pay gasoline taxes for the miles they drive on those roads, even though those taxes are typically used to pay for state and federal highways.
The Atlantic Cities / Citylab had a recent blurb linking to some 2013 academic research Debunking the Myth That Only Drivers Pay for Roads. And more recently the Atlantic Magazine did a longer piece highlighting an updated Spring 2015 USPIRG paper Who Pays for Roads? How the “Users Pay” Myth Gets in the Way
of Solving America’s Transportation Problems.