American Roads Depend on Handouts From Bus Riders, Cyclists, Pedestrians

Paying for roads costs everyone, whether they drive or not. Chart: US PIRG
Paying for roads costs everyone, not just people who drive. Graphic: U.S. PIRG

Once upon a time in America, the road system was largely funded by the gas tax. But that was many Highway Trust Fund bailouts ago.

User fees have made up a declining share or road funding as general taxes have increased. Graph: US PIRG
Gas taxes, tolls, and other fees on driving account for a rapidly declining share of road spending. Graph: US PIRG

Today, only about half the money spent on the U.S. road system comes from fuel taxes, tolls, or other fees paid by drivers, according to a new report [PDF] by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Taxes with no relation to the amount people drive — property taxes and sales taxes, for instance — account for about 42 percent of road and highway spending, PIRG reports. Another 10 percent comes from bonding, and given elected officials’ deep reluctance to raise gas taxes, a lot of those bonds won’t be paid off by drivers.

Between 1947 and 2012, the total subsidy for American roads amounted to about $1 trillion, according to PIRG’s analysis of data from the Federal Highway Administration. On an annual basis, the road subsidy has only been getting larger recently, as inflation eats away at gas tax revenues and cars become increasingly fuel efficient. Today, drivers cover roughly 50 percent of spending on roads, compared to 70 percent in the 1970s.

The average American household now supports the U.S. road system to the tune of between $1,100 and $1,848 per year in sales taxes, property taxes, and other indirect subsidies, such as the cost of traffic collisions to government agencies, according to PIRG.

“Our transportation finance system resembles a ‘users pay’ model less than at any time in modern history,” write authors Tony Dutzik, Gideon Weissman, and Phineas Baxandall. “The conclusion is inescapable: all of us, regardless of how much we drive, now bear the cost of our roads.”

In fact, federal, state, and local governments spend more money subsidizing roads than they spend on transit, biking, and walking combined, PIRG finds.

So, keep this research handy the next time someone tells you that America’s transportation system is paid for by drivers whose money gets diverted to other priorities like transit and biking. The truth is that we all pay for roads, whether we drive or not.

  • Jeff

    Sweet, I’m glad I get to pay over a thousand bucks a year so that oversized children can make honking noises at each other.

  • tbatts666

    Almost like socialism for the rich, except that owning a car doesn’t guarantee you are rich.

    Maybe our transit financing is like socialism to benefit the machines.

  • Southeasterner

    What’s missing from this analysis and most analysis is how the original interstate highway system (which we are still using today) was funded. Hint it wasn’t gas tax. Yet transportation opponents constantly object to “subsidizing” the construction of transit infrastructure.

  • Tyson White

    It’s funny how conservatives are willing to go directly against their beliefs of fiscal responsibility when it comes to subsidizing driving.

  • Tyson White

    Angie, you can also quote this study http://taxfoundation.org/article/gasoline-taxes-and-user-fees-pay-only-half-state-local-road-spending though I don’t know much about the authors.

  • R.A. Stewart

    *And* the suburbs.

  • CBrinkman

    Great concise wrap up of the situation. I frequently tell people that what I hear them saying is that they want everyone to pay their fair share when it comes to roads – and I agree with that. However, they should be aware that I, as a very infrequent driver, will be getting a refund and that they should expect to pay more. But yes, let’s join hands in this fair share push for road funding.

  • Hollinshead

    Transit funding opponents and/or road boosters in MN have at times pointed out that public buses in MN pay no fuel tax on their diesel which, of course, is beside the point here, since this analysis covers various funding sources & transit at peak times provides much greater trip miles per vehicle than driving. Just to be more precise though, your headline should read “Transit Patrons” instead of “Bus Riders”, in order to avoid the spurious rebuttal that non-tax-paying buses use roads, and also to cover the fact that our biggest transit load factors are on rush-hour or game-time runs not using roads at all, i.e. light rail runs.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Though it calls itself “non-partisan”, from what I understand the Tax Foundation is a conservative think tank, so it’s interesting to see their highway/street/road funding breakdown very closely matches the results reported by PIRG.

  • R.A. Stewart

    I can go to the neighborhood park and watch the Canada geese for a lot less. 🙂

  • tim_in_seattle

    Yeah but all your groceries get delivered to the local store on those roads, etc, etc
    Lots of reasons “non users” should pay a share
    And I am a daily year round bicycle commuter, so don’t start on me

  • no one

    The old “we pay more taxes then motorist” card again….That old and tired excuse is nothing but an excuse for the bicycle coalition to bully politicians, and motorists to get their way.
    Here is a newsflash to bicyclists & bicycle advocates, paying more in taxes, doesn’t grant you special rights & privleges. You want to be equals, get a license plate for your bicycle, then we will talk.

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