Dave Neiwert has a great guest column in today’s Seattle P-I, and while he’s writing about bicyclists, the same holds true for pedestrian and transit commuters as well:
Trier, like a lot of misinformed folks, seems to believe the only road taxes we pay are motor vehicle licensing fees and fuel taxes. But the truth is that those fees largely pay for state and federal highways, and even then only a portion of them. The rest of the costs of those roadways are borne by all taxpayers generally, including bicyclists, through local, property and sales taxes. Local roads, where you find most cyclists, are another story altogether.
Indeed, most bicyclists in fact also own cars, so they’re also paying the licensing fees and gas taxes as well. But by using their bikes in place of cars, the wear and tear (and subsequent maintenance costs) they inflict is exponentially less than that caused by cars and trucks.
A 1995 study titled “Whose Roads?” by cycling advocate Todd Litman laid all this out in detail. The study estimated that automobile users pay an average of 2.3 cents per mile in user fees, including fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, while they actually impose 6.5 cents per mile in road service costs. Who pays the difference? It’s picked up by general taxes and property assessments. So while bicyclists pay an equal share of those taxes, they impose costs averaging only 0.2 cents per mile in road service costs.
The amount bicyclists overpay leaps out when you look at the costs of local roads, the roads cyclists use most. Litman found that only a third of the funds for their construction and maintenance comes from vehicle user charges; local property, income and sales taxes pay the rest. Automobile user fees contribute only about 1 cent per mile toward the costs of local roads but simultaneously impose costs more than six times that amount.
This is the type of clarity that makes Dave one of my favorite local writers, and it highlights an argument that should be raised in the midst of the debate over the controversial Roads & Transit measure on the November ballot. The anti-rail folk often argue that they shouldn’t have to subsidize transit riders, when in fact it is transit riders who have long been subsidizing roads via the sales and property taxes that pay for the bulk of their maintenance. Likewise, relatively light drivers like me — I average less than 6,000 miles a year — get substantially less for our sales, property and MVET tax buck than a more typical 15,000 to 20,000 mile per year commuter.
The idea that automobile drivers pay as they go, while everybody else is a freeloader, is complete and utter bullshit that fails to evaluate our transportation system and tax structure as a whole. But I’ve never before been able to put it into words quite effectively as Dave.