Do Missouri bicyclists pay their way on Missouri roads?

A blast from the past: This article, first posted on the MoBikeFed web site in April 2003, is just as relevant today as it was then--in fact more so, because in recent years large influxes of general revenue and deficit spending have gone into federal transportation spending.  So if motorists didn't pay their full share of the cost of roads and highways in 2003, they do so even less in 2011, when about $7-8 billion of the $50 billion federal Highway Trust Fund comes directly from general revenue every year.

Whether motorists (or bicyclists, or pedestrians, or transit users, or anyone else) pays their full share of the costs of roads, trails, and highways through user fees has been a common topic of discussion since then--and every study has come to the same conclusion: motorists are far from paying the the full cost of roads and highways.  Motor vehicle travel is subsidized to a far greater extent than bicycling or walking.

So maybe it is time to get beyond that question, and just decide what kind of transportation system we want as a state and as a nation.

When you look at it that way, bicycling and walking infrastructure starts to look like a good deal for everyone--where it works, it is by far the most economical way to connect people to their destinations, and bicycling and walking facilities have a public benefit far beyond their role in the transportation system.

Do Missouri bicyclists pay their way on Missouri roads?

When the question of on-road bicycling comes up in Missouri, a common question that is asked is: "Why should we allow bicycles on the road at all? Bicyclists don't pay for the roads they are riding on, do they?"

 

The heartbreak of highly expensive bicycle facilities . . .

There are a lot of answers to this question. Even if bicyclists didn't pay a nickel towards the roads, there are important economic, social, and legal reasons to allow bicyclists on the road. Every U.S. state allows on-street bicycling. Courts across the country, up to the U.S. Supreme Court, have considered fundamental the right to travel the public roadways on foot and bicycle. Since 1991, projects receiving federal funding have required the consideration of the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists. A US DOT policy statement calls the level of bicycle and pedestrian access an "important indicator species" for the health of the community and adds, "People want to live and work in places where they can safely and conveniently walk and/or bicycle." Pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities have higher property valuesMost states and communities are now encouraging alternate modes of transportation like bicycling, walking, and mass transit. Bicycling and walking decrease traffic congestion. According to the 2000 Census, about 10% of Missouri households own no automobile, about 25% of Missourians have no driver's license, and 60,000 adult Missourians walk or bike to work.

But let us consider only one aspect: Do cyclists pay their way?

Some argue that roads are paid for entirely by user fees such as gas taxes, automobile registration fees, and the like. Cyclists don't pay these user fees and so they shouldn't be allowed to use the roads.

Is this true?

Consider the facts:

  1. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA), 92% of the funds for local roads--the ones most often used by cyclists--come from property, income, and sales taxes. Bicyclists pay these taxes just like everyone else does.
     
  2. FWHA calculates that, in a typical year (2000), 94.4% of federal highway funds come from user fees. But that means that 5.6% of highway dollars come the general fund [Note: As of 2011 this number is at least 15%], so even a bicyclist who owns no car contributes to federal highway funds, too.
     
  3. It is often said that funds the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) uses for highway construction and maintenance come completely from road user fees. As a sweeping generalization this is true. All of the Missouri state contributation to MoDOT's highway budget (55% of the budget) comes from user fees--fuel taxes and a portion of the sales tax on motor vehicles (though one could ask the question--is sales tax really a user fee? None of the sales tax from the sale of carrots goes directly into support of carrot farmers and carrot production . . . sales tax from all goods is usually considered part of general revenue.)

    Regardless, the other 45% of MoDOT's highway funding comes from the federal government. As discussed in Point 2, a portion of this federal contribution comes from the general tax fund. Because of this, at least 2.5% of MoDOT's highway budget comes from general taxes. [2011 Update: A greater portion of the federal transportation funding now comes from the general fund and MoDOT's state budget has "fallen off a cliff" and is dramatically reduced.  Result: At least 10% of MoDOT's budget now comes from the general fund.]  Again, even the hypothetical non-car owning bicyclist contributes to MoDOT's operating budget.
     
  4. In the end, all roads must be considered as a complete, interconnected network. Considering the road network as a whole, about 2/3 of the funding comes from user fees and 1/3 from general taxes. [2011 Update: It is close to 50/50 now.] Again, our hypothetical non-automobile-owning cyclist makes a contribution.
     
  5. Many services associated with the roadways are paid out of general tax funds. Examples: police, fire and ambulance services, traffic court. A typical household pays a few hundred dollars per year towards such services. According to the Federal Highway Administration, "These external costs are substantially higher than highway agency costs".

    Woah there--motorist user fees don't even pay for all of highway agency costs, and then it turns out that there are other costs associated with our road and highway system that are far higher yet, and motorist user fees don't pay for any of those costs?  

    Yup.  Here is a good summary of those costs: "The cost of road maintenance is averaged at 5.6 cents per mile per motor vehicle. Add the so-called external costs of parking (10 cents), crashes (8 cents), congestion (4 cents), and land costs and that's another 28 cents per mile!"

    So motorist user fees only pay part of the road maintenance and construction cost, and that turns out to be about 1/5 of the total cost.  So we're looking at something like 90% of the total taxpayer cost of driving comes from the general fund.

    That means that motorist travel is heavily subsidized from the general tax funds--and, like it or not, everyone helps pay that subsidy, including bicyclists.
     
  6. Design improvements needed to make roadways more bicycle-friendly are generally inexpensive and very cost-effective. Roads constructed to modern design standards are quite bicycle-friendly already--improvements like wider lanes and shoulders are included to improve safety for all road users and are not bicycle-specific. The bicycle-specific expenses in good road design are few: bicycle-safe grates and traffic signals that detect bicycles (and motorcycles), for instance. Such expenses may cost a few thousand dollars in projects with budgets of a few million.
     
  7. Bicycles have a very low impact on the roadway.

One study of nationwide average roadway funding and costs found that bicycles impose about 0.2 cents per mile in roadway costs. Bicycles have no associated user fees so the entire 0.2 cents comes from the general tax fund.

What about motor vehicles? They impose an average of 3.9 cents per mile in roadway costs while paying an average of 2.5 cents per mile in user charges such as fuel taxes and motor vehicle registration fees. The difference--1.4 cents per mile--comes from the general tax fund.

So both bicycle and motor vehicle road use is subsidized from general tax revenue. This is fair, since both bicyclists and motorists pay into the general tax fund.

But bicycles have such a low impact on the road that their subsidy is actually quite low--the general tax revenue subsidy for a cyclist who rides 5000 miles per year is only about $10.

Now let's do the math. Figuring a quart of Gatorade and a Power Bar for every 20 miles, my calculator tells me that, to cover that 5000 miles, the cyclist is paying at least $500 in food and so (at a 5% tax rate) $25 in sales tax.

That sales tax covers the $10 road impact cost with change to spare.

Maybe bicyclists DO pay their way on Missouri roads . . . at least as well as motor vehicle drivers do.

 

SOURCES:

Paragraph 2: US DOT Policy Statement, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/bikeped/Design.htm

Point 1: FHWA, 1997 Federal Highway Cost Allocation Study, USDOT (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/hcas/final/), 1997.

Point 2: FHWA, 1997 Federal Highway Cost Allocation Study, USDOT (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/hcas/final/), 1997, specificallyhttps://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/hcas/final/four.htm. Table IV-1 states that in 1994, $21 billion (94.2%) of all federal "Obligations or Expenditures" came from "User Revenues" while $1.3 billion (5.8%) came from "Other Sources". In 2000, these figures were $27 billion (94.4%) from "User Revenues" and $1.6 billion (5.6%) from "Other Sources".

Point 3: FHWA, 1997 Federal Highway Cost Allocation Study, USDOT (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/hcas/final/four.htm, Table IV-1), 1997, as discussed in Point 2, combined with MoDOT's annual financial report, found online at http://www.modot.state.mo.us/modot/accountability2002/ (specificallyhttp://www.modot.state.mo.us/modot/accountability2002/PDF/Tab_8_Spreadsheet.pdf).

Point 4: "Whose Roads? Defining Bicyclists’ and Pedestrians’ Right to Use Public Roadways", Todd Litman, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, p. 5-6, http://www.vtpi.org/whoserd.pdf.

Point 5: Six studies of typical cost of traffic services, summarized on p. 6 of "Whose Roads?". Quotation from the Federal Highway Administration:https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/hcas/final/six.htm, last paragraph.

Point 7: "Whose Roads?", p. 6 (vehicle cost and taxes) and p. 9 (bicycle per-mile cost). Missouri user fees may pay a slightly higher proportion of highway costs than the national average, mostly because the state contribution to MoDOT's highway funds comes entirely from user fees, while many states' contribution to highway funds come from a combination of user fees and the general tax fund. But the federal contribution to the general roadway network is the same in Missouri as in all other states, and the fact the city and county roadways are funded mostly (92%--see Point 1) from non-user fees is the same. So the general thrust of the argument holds true in Missouri--and any other state that funds the state portion of its highway budget solely from user fees--as well.