There’s a persistent misconception in American culture that transit is a big drain on public coffers while roads conveniently and totally pay for themselves through the magic of gas taxes. And that used to be true — at least for interstate highways, a fraction of the total road network.
But that was many, many failed attempts to raise the gas tax ago. A new report from the Tax Foundation shows 50.7 percent of America’s road spending comes from gas taxes, tolls, and other fees levied on drivers. The other 49.3 percent? Well, that comes from general tax dollars, just like education and health care. The way we spend on roads has nothing to do with the free market, or even how much people use roads.
“Nationwide in 2010, state and local governments raised $37 billion in motor fuel taxes and $12 billion in tolls and non-fuel taxes, but spent $155 billion on highways,” writes the Tax Foundation’s Joseph Henchman. Another $28 billion of that $155 billion comes from revenue from the federal gas tax.
Meanwhile, transit fares cover 21 percent of costs nationwide, indicating that the difference in subsidies for roads and transit is not as great as it’s often made out to be. (Though in absolute terms, there is a big difference: The total subsidy for roads dwarfs the total subsidy for transit.)
Even more interesting is to compare roads to Amtrak, a favorite target of self-styled fiscal conservatives in Congress. Amtrak recovers about 85 percent of its operating costs from tickets — a relative bargain compared to other modes. Even accounting for capital costs, Amtrak — which operates mostly on privately owned tracks — covers 69 percent of its total costs through ticket prices and other fees to users.
The Tax Foundation also analyzed transportation spending in every state to determine which states subsidize their road systems the most through general taxes. Drivers in Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina, and New York cover the highest share of road spending compared to drivers in other states. Drivers in Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, and Vermont cover the lowest share.
Correction: An earlier version of this story, using Tax Foundation calculations that don’t factor in the federal gas tax, understated the share of road spending covered by drivers. Also, updated 1/24/13 to reflect total Amtrak costs.