I’ve written before on the myth that highways are self-sufficient while modes like transit and bicycles are “subsidized.” A recent Governing Magazine article explores this topic by dissecting the idea of the gas tax as a user-fee, a distinction of terminology that is often used to argue that gas-tax money shouldn’t be spent on things like rail, transit, or bike accommodations:
Why do all these labels matter? Aren’t they just semantics? No, because labels influence policies. Road firsters say that high-speed trains, light-rail lines and streetcars need subsidies, which proves their illegitimacy. By insisting that gas taxes be called what they are—taxes—and assessing how roads have really been paid for will help keep these debates honest.
The author, Alex Marshall, makes the same point that I’ve made before: assuming for a moment that you accept the idea that gas tax is a user fee, gas taxes alone haven’t paid for road building and maintenance without significant infusions of general fund dollars for over a half-century, to the tune of $600 billion dollars. Right now, gas taxes only pay for about half of all highway work.
Road firsters also are wrong when they claim revenues from the gas tax pay for most of the costs of roads. The United States has one of the finest road systems in the world, more than 4 million miles, built over the past 125 years and paid for almost entirely by tax dollars, of which the gas tax is almost certainly just one small portion. The gas tax did not even begin on a federal level until 1932. Congress passed the first Federal Aid Road Act in 1916.
Marshall’s purpose in understanding the terminology we use is an important one. The goal with transportation policy should be to increase mobility and connectivity, to shorten transport times, and to connect goods and services to markets. Referring to burning gasoline as a user-fee for transportation distorts the relationship among these things, redefining transportation as merely driving regardless of whether it meets any goal of mobility, efficiency, connectivity, etc.
If we can just get to the point where we agree that all transportation modes are subsidized, and that transportation shouldn’t be burdened by some impossible cost-recovery model, it will go a long way to making sure we are discussing the right modes (and, yes, this will include single occupant vehicle travel) and the right infrastructure (and, yes, this will include highways ) for the right purposes.