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Highways aren’t cheap dates.

January 20, 2011

Is our money where our hearts are?

Our nation’s highways aren’t much into “going Dutch.”

The broad perception is that highways pay for themselves, but in reality they want us—drivers and non-drivers alike—to pick up the tab, 20 percent of it anyway.

According to a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), “Highways do not—and, except for brief periods in our nation’s history, never have—paid for themselves through the taxes that highway advocates label ‘user fees.’”

These “user fees” have been defined as things like tolls and gas taxes, but U.S. PIRG says that there is a growing disparity between the amount raised by these fees and the amount spent on highways—and the difference is being covered through general and property tax revenue.

As Sarah Mirk writes in her post, “Debunking the Myth that Highways Pay for Themselves” in the Portland Mercury:

“People who don’t drive very often are still shouldering the cost of highways.”

According to U.S. PIRG, “Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads, and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called ‘user fees’ by $600 billion (2005 dollars), representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways.”

Despite these figures, lobbyists still find a sympathetic ear to the “they pay for themselves” argument. Meanwhile, public transportation programs receive only about 50 percent of their funding from federal sources.

“The myths associated with road financing put all other forms of transportation at a disadvantage,” said Dan Smith of U.S. PIRG.

Now, at the risk of abusing a hot-button issue for my own agenda, I’ll ask this question:

Do we cherish our driving ability more than our good health?

While we can’t agree to pool our resources to give everyone in our country access to quality healthcare, we decided long ago that it was wise to take money from the central pot to give everyone access to long stretches of asphalt.

Of course, universal healthcare and national highway systems aren’t perfectly parallel issues. Still, the question is worth a moment of thought.

So, tell us, what do you think?


P.S. DC Streetsblog further unpacks the data surrounding the issue.

P.P.S. Thanks to Pawl for alerting me to all this info.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. tallpawl permalink
    February 7, 2011 10:44 pm

    I always like those parallels, the ones I never think of.
    The highway system vs Health Care parallel makes me think of a quote by.. Dan Rather..? Some old late night tv news anchor:
    People will tolerate anything as long as it doesn’t disrupt traffic.

    If highways paid for themselves, then why are there toll roads?

    • avaerewyck permalink
      February 9, 2011 12:36 pm

      To the contrary, Pawl, I think you often compose apt analogies.

      Regarding tolls, it’s the “user fee” toll system that leads many to make the claim that highways pay for themselves, but the numbers show that toll proceeds don’t even come close to covering the real cost of highways. Plus, many, many highways are toll-free.

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