By John Latta, Tina Grady Barbaccia and Mike Anderson
PIRG Blasts Highway Advocates; ARTBA Blasts PIRG
The report is nothing if not blunt: “Highways do not, and — except for brief periods in our nation’s history — never have paid for themselves through taxes that highway advocates label ‘user fees’.” This comes from U.S. PIRG (see endnote) that says of highway advocates who claim that roads pay for themselves with fuel taxes and other driving charges that cover, or almost cover, the full cost of highway building and maintaining: “They are wrong.”
“Highway advocates use the ‘user fees/highways pay for themselves’ myth in an effort to secure access to scarce government revenue for their desired public policy ends — distorting transportation decision-making,” says the report, titled Do Roads Pay For Themselves? Setting the record straight on transportation funding.
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association was even more blunt in response: “I think PIRG is on a planet that is not occupied by anyone else in the transportation universe,” says Jeff Solsby, ARTBA’s director of public affairs. “There are more holes in the assertions of this report than in a brick of Swiss cheese. I get the impression they want to refight decades-old battles, a mode versus mode war if you were. The transportation community has never been more unified in our policy goals than we are today, as demonstrated by the countless other reports making policy recommendations in this area. This report reads more like a fundraising appeal to narrow, fringe audiences than a policy treatise to help move Congress toward the community’s shared goal of passing an overdue highway/transit bill ASAP.”
Gas taxes “are not user fees in any meaningful sense of the term,” says the report. The amount of money a particular driver pays in gasoline taxes bears little relationship to his or her use of roads funded by taxes — unlike other true user fees such as admission fees for state parks or turnpike tolls.” The report says of the federal gas tax, begun as a deficit-fighting measure by President Herbert Hoover, that “only during a brief 17-year period beginning in 1956 did Congress temporarily dedicate gas tax revenues to construct the Interstate network, a project completed in the 1990s.” According to the report, not all states dedicate their gas taxes to highways and even among those that do, roughly 20 cents of every dollar collected goes to non-highway projects.
According to U.S. PIRG, “since 1947 the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called ‘user-fees’ by $600 billion (2005 dollars), representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways.” Today, user fees pay only about half the cost of building and maintaining America’s roads and “new or expanded highways are even less likely to pay for themselves in the future,” says the report.
Gasoline taxes should not be dedicated to roads according to the report, because “that dedication of gasoline tax revenue to highway projects inherently prejudices transportation decision-making in favor of highways. In the current atmosphere of massive state budget shortfalls and federal budget deficits, there is simply no way to ensure that other transportation priorities receive adequate investment if highways get first dibs on dedicated funding.”
The report attacks “highway advocates” for arguing that highways come with their own built-in source of revenue but failing to document whether new or expanded roads will actually raise enough funds to cover their costs. In another attack, the report claims that “highway advocates often use funding myths to make public transit and other forms of transportation appear relatively more expensive — diverting attention from the full accounting of costs and benefits that should be the basis of sound transportation decision-making.” U.S. PIRG argues that “when we let the ability of a transportation mode to ‘pay for itself’ shape what types of infrastructure we build, then we miss opportunities to build transportation systems that provide the greatest benefit to society as a whole.”
U.S. PIRG claims the report will help America “get on with the critical debate about what types of transportation infrastructure to build and how to pay for them, free from the false assumptions and the tired slogans of the past.”
U.S. PIRG’s website is www.uspirg.org and you can find the full report there. v
Editor’s Note. This is how U.S. PIRG describes itself: U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), stands up to powerful special interests on behalf of the American public, working to win concrete results for our health and our well-being. With a strong network of researchers, advocates, organizers and students in state capitols across the country, we take on the special interests on issues, such as product safety, political corruption, prescription drugs and voting rights, where these interests stand in the way of reform and progress.
No Such Thing as a Free Park
Like ants to a picnic, drivers will flock to cheap parking spaces. University of California at Berkeley researchers have worked out, sort of, just what energy and emissions arise from building America’s vast parking space and their cost. But first, they wondered, how many parking spaces are there in America?
“The U.S. parking infrastructure is vast, and little is known about its scale and environmental impacts. The few parking space inventories that exist are typically regionalized and no known environmental assessment has been performed to determine the energy and emissions from providing this infrastructure. A better understanding of the scale of U.S. parking is necessary to properly value the total costs of automobile travel. Energy and emissions from constructing and maintaining the parking infrastructure should be considered when assessing the total human health and environmental impacts of vehicle travel.”
And the answer is: “We develop five parking space inventory scenarios and from these estimate the range of infrastructure provided in the United States to be between 105 million and 2 billion spaces.”
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