Supporters of transit are often challenged to explain why the public should subsidize buses and trains when they don’t subsidize roads, which are paid for by gas taxes. Bicycle advocates occasionally hear the criticism that cyclists don’t belong on the roads because they don’t pay the gas tax (ignoring the fact that most cyclists also own and drive cars) and are using the roads for free.
So, is this true? Do highways pay for themselves through gas taxes, tolls, and user fees while transit and bike accommodations only exist on the shoulders of the taxpayers?
Since 1947, researchers have found that the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the funds raised from gas taxes and other user fees by $600 billion, “representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways.” In fact, as of 2007, fees charged to motorists covered only about half the cost of building and maintaining the country’s roads. The rest is financed with other taxes and bonds.
In fact, the Highway Trust Fund – the federal fund that pays for road building and maintenance – has been bankrupt since 2008, kept alive with an infusion of $34 billion in general-fund revenue and debt.
This is not to say that there’s a problem with this. Public infrastructure should be paid for with public funds, regardless of what specific tax they’re tied to. But it does open up the debate to consider which modes are more appropriate for which areas and more deserving for funding. If everything is subsidized – and, clearly, it is – the discussion should be which modes allow for the most mobility and most efficient system in a given area. Transit, bike infrastructure, rail, and so forth still won’t always be the answer, but I bet you they will rise to the top more often than not. And it forces highway advocates to explain, for example, why its better to spend millions widening highways to relieve rush hour traffic congestion when additional buses might do the same job at a better return on the investment.