Bad Idea of the Year: Taxing Cyclists by the Mile

All this week the LA Times is sponsoring a "debate" between Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole and local cyclist and writer Will Campbell. Yesterday’s writings can be found in Today’s Clips. Today’s will be available tomorrow (the debate isn’t yet posted when I’m doing the clips).

Campbell is doing an excellent job representing the cyclists out there. O’Toole is also doing a good job…a good job of serving as an example of just what activist bike riders are up against.

In today’s post, O’Toole argues that cyclists need to pay a regular tax of some sort before they deserve a "seat at the table" when it comes to making funding decisions. To this free-market thinker, the amount of dollars that are spent on bike projects ought to be equal to the user fee paid by cyclists.

O’Toole also is aghast at US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters’ comment that 40% of federal transportation dollars are spent on ‘non-transportation’ projects, such as bike lanes. O’Toole’s outrage is what Peters was hoping for, that it is outrageous to spend gas tax dollars on non-car products.

O’Toole’s comments in italics, my response in blue.

O’Toole:
The federal government collects about $40 billion a year in gasoline taxes and other highway user fees. When bridges are falling down and commuters are wasting 3 billion gallons of fuel each year just sitting in traffic, it is important to target this money on the most cost-effective projects.
Yet, as U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters has noted, Congress diverts 40% of federal highway fees to non-highway programs. It has also dictated that billions of dollars of fees be earmarked for bridges to nowhere and other useless projects.

Street Heat:
Bridges aren’t falling down because the federal government is spending too much money on bike projects. That’s ridiculous. As this report by STPP shows, states spend less than 3/4 of the money given to them for bridge repair every year. Bridges collapse because it’s more important to continue to expand highway capacity than it is to maintain our roads and bridges in the eyes of most politicians.

Second, that 40% number includes the 30% of the federal transportation budget spent on transit. After Peters’ PBS appearance where she opined about this missing 40%, she downgraded the percent spent on "non-transportation" projects to "10-20%."

Third, it’s not like all of that money is going towards bike projects. Peters herself says that much of that money is going towards projects like museums.

O’Toole:
American motorists deserve to know that the taxes and fees they pay to drive on our great highway system are being spent effectively. Unfortunately, too many urban planners have joined the anti-automobile movement, and the name of the game for them is to divert as many highway dollars to non-highway projects as possible.

So many cities are spending highway funds on multimillion-dollar bicycle overpasses, exclusive bike paths and other expensive facilities. When we compare the number of people using these paths and bridges with the cost, they are often not a cost-effective way of moving people.

Street Heat:
At this point you have to start wondering if O’Toole did any research or if he wrote this on his blackberry while driving to work in the morning.

Only 1.5% of federal transportation dollars are spent on bike AND pedestrian projects combined.

Also, the writer clearly doesn’t know his audience. Is he really going to argue that Los Angeles is spending too much time and money on non-auto projects? I note the vague use of "so many cities are…" I guess San Francisco, Portland and New York now qualify as "so many."

Local gas tax payers aren’t incensed that there is money going towards bike projects, they’re incensed that the state robs transportation coffers to pay for anything that isn’t transportation. If you were to ask Angelenos who was most responsible for draining highway dollars away from highways, they would say Governor Schwarzenegger, who incidentally is the top governor in the country when it comes to fiscal matters according to the Cato Institute.

O’Toole:
At the same time, cyclists deserve to know that they can ride on our street networks without taking their lives in their hands. Motorists do not mind if an appropriate share of highway fees are spent on bike facilities as long as they are spent cost effectively. For example, motorists in my home state of Oregon support the dedication of 1% of state gas taxes to bike routes.

Street Heat:
That .5% extra is really bothering you, huh?

O’Toole:
One cost-effective alternative to expensive bike paths is bicycle boulevards. This is where streets paralleling busy arterials are dedicated to bicycle use while still open for local auto traffic. For little more than the cost of signage, and some careful planning at busy intersections, cyclists can have a safe alternative to the busier roads.

Street Heat:
I think most cyclists know what a bike boulevard is. I think most of us would be thrilled if LA would have more of them.

O’Toole:
In the end, it is all about money. A century ago, the League of American Wheelman joined auto owners in the Good Roads Movement. But no one knew how to pay for those roads until, in 1919, Oregon became the first state to dedicate a gasoline tax to highways and streets. Since then, motorists have paid at least 90% of the costs of the roads and streets cyclists ride on.

Today, California motorists pay an average of 2.5 cents in gas taxes for every mile they drive. That’s about 1.5 cents per passenger mile.

Will, are you willing to pay a fee of 1.5 cents for every mile you ride? I certainly am. For me, that would be about $75 a year. For most bicycle owners, it would be a lot less.

Street Heat
If there’s one area that I don’t agree with Will Campbell, it is here.

O’Toole’s argument is utter rubbish. If one wanted to argue that bikes should pay some sort of fee, that’s fine. I’ll have that argument. To argue that it should be equal to what cars and SUV’s pay, well that’s just not a well thought out position.

First off, the cost of building roads for automobiles is much higher than it would be for just bikes and pedestrians. Cyclists don’t need roads that are as wide, as dense, or that need to be repaired as often as automobiles. Oh, and the reason roads need to be repaired isn’t because cyclists (and our roughly 200 pounds per rider) are doing the damage to them. It’s the cars and especially the SUV’s that are doing the damage to the roads.

So get this, the people that are causing our country to spend billions of dollars on maintaining our roads and highways are the same people that are paying the most in user fees. Imagine that. The old adage, "you broke it, you own it" applies to roads as well.

O’Toole
Paying this fee would give cyclists a legitimate seat at the table when streets are built and rebuilt. It would also give transportation planners an incentive to take cyclists’ needs into account. Isn’t that a fair response to Peters’ complaint?

Street Heat
I deserve a seat at the table when streets are built because I’m a U.S. citizen, not because of the amount of taxes I pay. Also, I pay taxes on my car, when I buy gas, etc….most cyclists are also drivers. I prefer that these taxes are spent on more bike projects. Is that a fair request?

  • Anonymous

    Cato needs a history lesson, both CalTrans and the Federal Highway Administration can trace their roots to bicyclists at the turn of the century advocating for better roads. Before Internal Combustion cages were even invented! Respect your elders ride a bike. And remember PROPERTY TAXES build the lion’s share of roadways cyclists use and we pay PROPERTY TAXES significantly higher than our proportional impacts.
    http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/fall93/p93au1.htm

    Ride on!
    More info and links at http://www.bikecommuter.com/links.html

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