Highway funding is back in the air. There’s a new round of the old lie that drivers don’t pay their fair share.
This faceless menace called “drivers” is close to being a synonym for “Americans.” In the densest cities, only half the residents. Before painting ourselves as the enemy let’s look at some statistics from US DOT.
In 2016 drivers paid $111 billion in gas taxes and tolls. Vehicle owners paid $33 billion in other taxes and fees. Highway agencies made $19 billion from real estate (“investment income and other receipts”). There’s $163 billion in revenue from roads and motorized road users.
American government at all levels spent $157 billion on road construction and maintenance. Overhead costs, including unnecessary diversion of revenue through Washington, added $20 billion.
The totals are close, but they’re not directly comparable.
The alternative to private motor vehicles is not eliminating all $157 billion overhead. The government was building roads long before the steam engine. My street existed in the 19th Century when the area was farmland. You have to be able to get from your house to your destination, whether on rubber or leather.
Local roads are close to a public good. City streets have to remain even if we imagine the Interstates are gone. Deliveries still need roads. I’m sure the government would allow itself to drive. Non-motorized facilities paid for with motor vehicle taxes won’t be on the chopping block if the country suffers road regret.
We’re not going to tear up all the urban pavement either. Dirt roads are messy and bumpy.
The wider city streets could be narrowed, but most city streets aren’t wide. They would still need to be wide enough for two wagons to pass, or two buses.
So let’s trade. You destroy all non-governmental motor vehicle traffic. I destroy all state and Interstate highways and a third of the rest, leaving what we needed before the rise of the automobile. You eliminated $163 billion revenue. I eliminated $140 billion expenses.
Making up that $23 billion gap is your problem now. I don’t know where you’re going to find the money after destroying our economy, standard of living, and way of life. You’ll have even more trouble finding the many trillions of dollars required to build a less capable but buzzword-compliant replacement.
The highway system flourished because it served our needs. It paid for itself with user fees and economic growth.
Trains are dead because they require big subsidies and don’t solve the last mile problem.
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