Editor’s note: Earlier this week, the L.A. Times published an article by usually no-nonsense columnist George Skelton, who, after being “tortured” by a road closure for a triathlon, called for California cyclists to pay a registration fee to support road infrastructure. Skelton asserted that “[cyclists] have been freeloading off motorists who pay gas taxes.” Numerous analyses have shown that gas taxes fall short of paying for automotive infrastructure; car facilities, from freeways to parking, are subsidized by general purpose fees and taxes paid for by motorists and non-motorists alike. Friend of the blog Richard Risemberg submitted the following guest editorial that addresses these issues.
As anyone who travels L.A.’s streets in or on any sort of wheeled vehicle knows, our pavement is a mess. The city’s Bureau of Street Services notes that 37 percent of its 6,500 centerline miles (one mile of road regardless of the number of lanes) are grade “D” or “F.” While Los Angeles County claims a better rating for the 3,200 centerline miles under its jurisdiction, both bemoan the fact that there’s so much work to be done — and so little money to do it with. While it’s easy to blame “government inefficiency” here, the real culprit is hiding in plain sight–right there behind your windshield.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay called “Who Pays, Who Plays: the Gas Tax Fallacy,” which explores the cherished delusion most drivers cling to that they pay for the roads through the gas tax.
Now, this wasn’t true even in the days when eight-miles-a-gallon behemoths crowded our nation’s roads, and it’s even less so in these days of gas-sipping imports and hybrids and the occasional electric vehicle, as well as millennials’ disinterest in driving. In fact, the city of Los Angeles receives only $15 million from the California gas tax—and uses $60 million from other taxes, mostly from the general fund, to fix our streets.
There are also opportunity costs to road-building: All that broad asphalt displaces homes and businesses that would pay property, sales, and payroll taxes if they had room to establish themselves in our city.
Now the issue is surfacing in the mainstream press, especially with proposals to charge for driving by the mile, using “black box” GPS systems to monitor a vehicle’s yearly use of road space, along with suggestions that weight be a factor, too.
Of course, both right and left are terrified of being tracked by the National Security Agency, so the promise is that the boxes will track only the number of miles, not where they are incurred. (Yearly odometer readings could also work.) If driverless cars ever do become prevalent, of course, they will be utterly dependent on GPS and those pesky military satellites it uses, so the point will become moot. Private, miniature, inefficient little half-baked driverless buses will then crowd the roads, furthering our obsession with taking up too much room and pretending that the public realm is our private salon, paid for by that mysterious “someone else.”