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New Report: U.S. Road Funding From Non-Road Users Doubled in 25 Years

by Elana Schor


The myth that U.S. roads "pay for themselves" thanks to user fees is a subject that's likely familiar to many Streetsblog readers -- but just how much of the nation's highway funding is provided by charging drivers?

The answer may surprise even active critics of the current asphalt-centric transportation system. Between 1982 and 2007, the amount of federal highway revenue derived from non-users of the highway system has doubled, according to a study released today by Subsidyscope.

Analyzing Federal Highway Administration data dating back to 1957, the dawn of the Interstate system, Subsidyscope researchers found that non-users of the highway system contributed $70 billion for nationwide road construction and maintenance in 2007. In 1982, by contrast, highway contributions from non-users totaled just $35 billion (in 2007 dollars).

Today's study also found that the share of road funding generated by user fees fell to 51 percent in 2007, down from 61 percent just a decade earlier. (The accounting used by Subsidyscope, a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Sunlight Foundation, accounted for the use of about one-sixth of federal gas tax revenue to pay for transit.)

What has caused the government's increasingly rapid dependence on non-road user fees -- which more often than not take the form of direct transfers from the Treasury -- to pay for roads?

Subsidyscope points out that the federal gas tax has stayed stagnant since 1993, rapidly losing value as inflation climbs, but the growing popularity of bond issuances as a way to pay for new roads is also a factor. According to Subsidyscope's research, the value of new bonds issued to pay for highways reached $24.7 billion in 2007, up from just $6 billion in new bonds issued in 1982 (converted to 2007 dollars).

Bond offerings, which often represent states and localities playing a greater role in transportation planning, do not guarantee that users will be paying for new highway construction -- rather, bonds depend on market conditions to allow a successful leveraging of debt, and the recent economic downturn has forced many governments to limit their bonding plans.

This piece originally appeared on Streetsblog New York City.

Image Credit: Subsidyscope

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This analysis of course doesn't begin to consider the broader costs of roads - police patrols, the cost of accidents, air, water and noise pollution impacts, property values diminished (though in some cases property values are inflated as a result of a new sprawl inducing road), the weakening of bus and train systems, and on and on.

Using the data here to advocate modestly increased user fees is unlikely to significantly reduce demand for roads, given the inelasticity of demand of driving, but at least would free up public resources for other needed services.

Posted by: Herb on 26 Nov 09

Please note, all, that this refers to federal highways, which were always LESS subsidized than state and municipal roadways. For an example of the far higher subsidies for state and local roads, see this study from Texas DOT:

Posted by: Rick Risemberg on 26 Nov 09

Everything is perception. We have all paid for something that we do not use. Have "non-road-users" ever ridden in a car with a "road-user?"

"I am here to serve."
The Window Man

Posted by: The Window Man on 27 Nov 09

As we all should know by now, former chairman of the Texas House of Representatives Transportation Committee Mike Krusee himself recently said this: "What we found was that no road that we built in Texas paid for itself. None." And we also know that Texas Transportation Institutes' statistics are commonly used to buttress pro-road arguments. But TTI actually has a pro-multimodal mentality, as evidenced by the below, which are just some of the things that can be found here:

• Providing more options for how a trip is made, the time of travel and the way that transportation service is paid for may be a useful mobility improvement framework for urban areas. For many trips and in many cities, the alternatives for a peak period trip are to travel earlier or later, avoid the trip or travel in congestion. Given the range of choices that Americans enjoy in many other aspects of daily life, these are relatively few and not entirely satisfying options

• In growing areas adding capacity of all types is essential to handle the growing demand and avoid rapidly rising congestion

• Commute trips generally cluster around the most congested peak periods and are from the same origin to the same destination at the same time of day. These factors make commute trips by carpooling, vanpooling, public transit, bicycling and walking more likely

• Peak period public transportation service during congested hours can improve the transportation capacity, provide options for travel mode and allow those without a vehicle to gain access to jobs, school, medical facilities, and other destinations. In the case of public transportation lines that do not intersect roads, the service can be particularly reliable as they are not affected by the collisions and vehicle breakdowns that plague the roadway system and are not as affected by weather, road work, and other unreliability-producing events

• Transit, like ridesharing, park-and-ride lots and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, typically have a greater effect on the congestion statistics in a corridor, rather than across a region. Transit and these other elements “compete” very well with the single-occupant vehicle in serving dense activity centers and congested travel corridors[viii]

• (Smart Growth) characteristics can be incorporated into new developments so that new economic development does not generate the same amount of traffic volume as existing developments. Among the tools that can be employed are better management of arterial street access, incorporating bicycle and pedestrian elements, better parking strategies, assessing transportation impact before a development is approved for construction, and encouraging more diverse development patterns

• If a region’s vehicle-miles of travel were to increase by five percent per year, roadway lane-miles would need to increase by five percent each year to maintain the initial congestion level

• This analysis shows that it would be almost impossible to attempt to maintain a constant congestion level with road construction only. Over the past 2 decades, less than 50 percent of the needed mileage was actually added. This means that it would require at least twice the level of current-day road expansion funding to attempt this road construction strategy. An even larger problem would be to find suitable roads that can be widened, or areas where roads can be added, year after year

Posted by: David Parvo on 2 Dec 09

Non-User. If you think of it, they are not really non users, because most of us are passengers in a car. I don't think there are too many people that haven't used a car to travel. Celebrity

Posted by: Celebrity on 3 Jul 10

I find it hard to believe that federal gas tax has stayed consistent since 1993. That's such a long time ago. Either way, this is a great article.

info on purity rings

Posted by: Julie on 28 Sep 10

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