Who Pays for Roads, Addressing the “Users Pay” Myth

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Earlier this year U.S. PIRG released “Who Pays for Roads? How the “Users Pay” Myth Gets in the Way of Solving America’s Transportation Problems”. In our discussions on roads and transportation in St. Louis, we have often heard that we a) roads pays for themselves via user fees and taxes, and b) bicyclists and pedestrians don’t pay their fair share. Whether you nod with knowing approval, or quickly type SMH in your mind, this report is a necessary read.

The gist of the study? “Nearly as much of the cost of building and maintaining highways now comes from general taxes such as income and sales taxes (plus additional federal debt) as comes from gasoline taxes or other “user fees” on drivers. General taxes accounted for $69 billion of highway spending in 2012.” “Governments spend more non-user tax dollars on highways than on transit, bicycling, walking and passenger rail travel, combined.”

U.S. PIRG - Who Pays for Roads

This issue is of particular interest in St. Louis and Missouri. We have known since at least 2008 that vehicle miles travelled (VMT) is likely to remain flat for years to come. We know that today St. Louis has more highway lane miles per capita than any other urbanized area in the nation, other than Kansas City. We know that over the past decade congestion has decreased in the St. Louis area, while commute times have lengthened. Over that time, we have spent several billion dollars on highway expansion. Each of these should inform policy.

This study is a good compliment to the ongoing transportation planning discussion in St. Louis and Missouri. The Atlantic has a good summary titled “The True Costs of Driving: Car owners don’t come close to covering the price of maintaining the roads they use.” We have addressed transportation funding and planning issues before on nextSTL. Just a sampling:

When the DOT Plans Your City

Connected2045 Highlights Disconnect in St. Louis Transportation Planning

Vote NO on 7: Continue the Conversation on Transportation Priorities

MoDOT to Taxpayers: Didn’t like our Carrots? Here comes the Stick!

Other findings in the U.S. PIRG study:

Bicyclists and Pedestrians Already Pay for Most of the Roads they Use


While hard data are difficult to come by, it stands to reason that many, if not most bicycle and pedestrian trips take place on local streets and roads that are largely paid for through property taxes and other sources of general revenue. Indeed, many state and federal highways—including Interstate highways and most other freeways—are completely off limits to pedestrians and bicyclists.


As general taxpayers in their communities, people who walk and bike help pay for the maintenance of streets, which are predominantly dedicated to the storage and movement of motor vehicles.


The Absurdity of Per-Trip or Per-Mile Comparisons of Transportation Subsidies


Compared with automobiles and trucks, pedestrians and bicyclists impose little wear and tear on road surfaces. A general rule of thumb is that the damage a vehicle imposes on a road surface increases to the fourth power of axle weight—that is, a vehicle that weighs ten times as much per axle imposes ten thousand times as much roadway damage as a lighter vehicle. A 200-pound bicyclist with a 50-pound bike, therefore, will impose approximately 1/65,000th the roadway damage of a 4,000 pound car.


Bicyclists and pedestrians also take up little room on roads. A stationary pedestrian takes up one-80th of the space of a parked vehicle, and a bicycle one-20th of the space. Compared with a vehicle traveling 60 miles per hour, a pedestrian takes up one-250th of the space, a bicyclist one-100th of the space, and a bus passenger one-67th of the space.

U.S. PIRG - Who Pays for Roads

Other sections address: “Who Subsidizes Whom? And Does it Matter?” and “Raising the Gas Tax Does Not Ensure that Money Will Be Well Spent.”

U.S. PIRG - Who Pays for Roads

Who Pays for Roads? by U.S. PIRG – 2015 by nextSTL.com

Trends in Regional Traffic Volumes – Signs of Change, by East West Gateway by nextSTL.com

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  • JZ71

    Raise the fuel tax by a penny a gallon, every 3 or 4 months, for the next five years, and most of the funding “problem” would be “solved”, with minimal visible pain for most drivers, what with prices at the pump varying by as much as 30 cents a gallon over the course of a week, now.

    Yes, EVERYTHING government does is a subsidy – most everybody pays taxes, but there are “services” that many of us don’t use that are deemed to be part of the “greater good”. It boils down to what each of us THINK is important, what we actually USE – libraries, schools, fire protection, museums, parks, bike lanes, social security, public transit and leaf pickup are all things that certain segments of the populace deem important, this year, while other segments wouldn’t miss if they were reduced or eliminated, completely.

    The other half of the equation is that there never, ever, is “enough” tax revenue to go around, to cover everybody’s “want” list. Pitting one group against another may be good click bait, a good way to generate comments on the interwebs, but it doesn’t do much to reach consensus, to actually solve problems. Nobody likes to pay taxes, especially for what they perceive to be “wasteful” or “unneeded” programs, but taxes (or “fees”) are what government needs to function.

  • Bryan Kirchoff

    Fascinating data. A couple of contrarian points:
    1) I am not sure why the focus is on “user pays” when it comes to roads, but not any other topic. I suspect, for example, the idea that state subsidies should be removed from St. Louis Public Schools (which spend around $14000 per average daily attendee, where districts like Festus spending around $7000) would not go over very well. How about the Zoo-Museum tax district being dissolved, with each of the beneficiary institutions charging entry fees instead? The suburbanite could argue a robust road system makes it possible for him/her to raise children in a good school district, with the solid education of his/her children and the economic activity of homebuilding benefitting everyone, including the urbanite.
    2) I love the idea of bicycling in theory, but honest observation is that cyclists violate traffic rules more times than I can count in a given week. Using the sidewalk or street as convenient. Threading through traffic rather than waiting in line. Not stopping at stop signs. And so on. And the introduction of dedicated bike lanes on major thoroughfares (such as Union Boulevard near my home) winds up causing vehicular traffic to back up in one lane, meaning cars spend more time stuck at red lights and waiting for left turns, sending more pollution into the air. All for a number of cyclists I can count on one hand in a given month, from what I have observed. So the assertion that bicyclists do not cause as much wear and tear on the roads has to be tempered by the other inconveniences that occur.
    The real solution – were it logistically feasible – would be separate bicycle trails/streets altogether.
    Bryan Kirchoff
    St. Louis

    • Nat76

      The reason for the road revenue analysis for roads is that the primary argument often used against mass transit and bike infrastructure is that it does not “pay for itself”. Opponents of these forms of transportation like to state that roads do pay for themselves via user fees. This is a complete myth (hence studies like this one doing the math). This becomes even more apparent when we consider that the number of roads encourage lower density development. Lower density development generates lower property tax valuation per unit of land area and it also requires massive set asides of parking, which hardly generates any tax revenue and is often free to vehicle users. When you go to Schnucks, the cost of all that parking is baked into the cost of items sold, even if you walk, bike, or take transit to Schnucks.

      As for bikes “breaking the rules”, I agree that it can be annoying. I don’t mind people coasting through stop signs as long as they are looking for incoming traffic. It’s the people who ignore other forms of road use that get me, and I see more “worst offenders” in cars, which can do more damage than a bike or someone with a mobility issue tearing down the sidewalk at 6mph on their rascal scooter.

      As far as segregating transit use, I could not disagree more. Transit uses complement rather than compete with one another. The most successful commercial and residential districts have private vehicles, commercial vehicles, pedestrians, bikes and often street cars sharing the same right of way. Separating uses (if it’s more than a simple buffer) means someone is removing one use from a commercial storefront district, primary arterial, etc.

    • matimal

      Are schools “subsidized”? Who is doing the subsidizing? Are individual students in schools subsidized? Students from poor households that pay little or no tax to local government can still attend school.
      Suburbanites would seriously argue that we should subsidize their roads so they can live separately and organize separate school system from others? I would hope that would have the good sense not to make such a ridiculous claim for special treatment!

    • Chris Cleeland

      Your “real solution” isn’t really a solution; it applies the logic of superhighways to cycling. How would you get to the grocery or your house if you could only drive your car on a superhighway? Silly, huh?

      What makes most sense is to not create bike-exclusive lanes on streets with multiple lanes in the same direction. Cyclists use the right lane most of the time and move into the left lane in order to do crazy things like turn left. Drivers pass in the left lane and generally be decent human beings. I both rode and drove Union in its pre- and post-bike lane treatment, and regardless of mode I preferred the pre-bike lane treatment.

      Certainly there will be some roads where a more dedicated facility makes the most sense for all road users, and we should definitely apply them there. But dedicate facilities don’t scale well, as you already point out.

      The reality is that while the car is an immensely useful tool as well as a blast to drive, we’ve done ourselves a disservice by viewing transportation through the lens of its dominance. Just as dedicated facilities don’t scale well, neither does using a car exclusively for transportation.

      There’s a saying in politics that goes something like “you know it’s a good compromise when nobody is happy”. I think the same may go for transportation. If drivers are completely happy, or cyclists are completely happy, or pedestrians are completely happy, or bus riders are completely happy…well, that means lots of other people aren’t and the happiness is at the others’ expense. As people trying to move about our built environment, we each need to individually recognize that we are no more entitled to a perfect transportation experience than anybody else, and that person in the car, or on the bike, or waiting for the bus, or crossing the street has as much right to that activity as we do.

  • A.J.

    Additionally, most sale and income taxes are generated in Urban areas. So even more money leaving St. Louis to go towards the rural alphabet soup when it comes out of the general fund.

    #MOmoney #MOproblems

    • Nat76

      This is the part that isn’t so straightforward. Per person, rural areas get more funding, but a lot of that is needed to more efficiently transport goods (like food) to urban areas or to transport goods between urban areas. The primary beneficiaries of I-70 are farmers, STL, KC, Columbia and major urban areas nationally who make use of the interstate system to increase productivity. The primary losers are small towns with dead commercial districts that are now bypassed by vehicles and the traditional urban cores of major urban areas that have seen a lot of disinvestment due to the overbuilding of expressways on the urban edges. Most of the benefit accrues to the suburbs of large metros and truck stop owners/fast food-gas station franchisees on interstate exits.

      • A.J.

        You speak only of “benefits” and none of the costs. That’s part of the problem: there’s no linking of pricing mechanism to determine what is actually a good investment. To the people receiving benefits, there’s no downside. Like my point before, the rural roads are paid for by the state taking away urban areas’ agency to pay for its own transit through sales or income tax to prop up a road network they refuse to pay for by increasing user fees.

        Near as I can tell, people in cities were able to eat before the advent of the of the bloated MODOT highways system. A market for food would obviously factor in the cost to market, and since people have to eat and would adjust their behaviors to pay. Cynically, I have to think “If subsidizing the farmers crops and rural infrastructure has benefit to society, why isn’t food cheaper and why are all rural portions of highways and interstates lined with Wal-Marts?”

        Politically, this makes total sense as our Republican Democracy form is designed to over-represent rural interests (Really Missouri? A Senate?). So as the Republicans became the party of Rural Interests they’re able to have their cake and eat it too by espousing small government, while at the same time raking in subsidies from the Urban areas.

        • Nat76

          I understand that there are additional costs to serving rural areas, but that is completely obvious and not unique to MO. Roughly 70% of the population in the lower 48 lives on 3-3.5% of the total land area. Serving the other 97% with a road network is expensive and subsidized because hardly anyone lives there. The sticks are the sticks whether you live in Idaho or Missouri. The problem is that the other 97% of the land contains most of the raw materials responsible for productivity in urban areas (food, wood, energy, minerals/metals, etc). It’s going to be expensive to supply a road network over a sparsely populated area.
          I’m not going to deny that there is some fat in the MODOT budget, but when you look at the total lane miles of all roadways in MO and account for things like general density, concentrations of density (weighted density) and the fact that unlike states with really rugged topography, swamps, deserts, people can live about anywhere, road mileage in MO is consistent with other states. Some of the state roads could be devolved to county control. I think a big issue here is that unlike states like OH, IN, IL, OK, and even IA, the federal expressway system does the state no favors. There is no north-south connection through the middle of the state, so state highways “pick up the slack”. Could we get by the way we did before all of the state highways? Sure. We also got by with rotary phones eating a crappy casserole from a TV tray in front of a 20″ black and white Zenith too. Preferences and service expectations change.
          In theory, you could push the costs to consumers who are purchasing raw materials, but there are a lot of externalities that get overlooked. Contrary to what you may believe, food in the US (for a developed country) is insanely inexpensive. Outside of bread, you’d pay 50% to twice as much in other similarly developed countries for basic things like eggs, milk, a head of lettuce, etc. Grocery stores make 3 bucks for every 100 you spend. Distributors make 4 bucks for every 100 the grocery store spends. Farmers are generally land rich but cash poor. The only people making a lot of money are probably seed engineers and equipment manufacturers (and their shareholders, who live in urban areas). With fuel costs, households can at least change their behavior, ie, move closer to work. You can’t do that with food to the same extent because people need to eat. Rural transit cuts mean reduced economic vitality, people moving, labor shortages for things that need to get done. Current examples: labor shortages in the Dakotas energy sector have led to ridiculously high wages to import labor and the accompanying high rents as guys pulling 80K a year drop NYC-level rents to share a tiny place in the middle of nowhere. In summary, it’s a lot more difficult that just saying, “We’ll cut the rural expenditures and people will just pay more because economics and things and stuff”.

          • A.J.

            That’s a whole lot of words, none of which being “cost” or “return on investment” when it comes to state highways. You can spout off all the silly emotional arguments or quote “externalities” but it doesn’t change the fact that the Missouri state highway system is full of pet projects dominated by rural interests. I’d rather see it burn down in the name of fairness if those same rural legislators are unwilling to pass user fees.

          • Nat76

            Again, you act as if MO is unique in this respect. 27-28 percent of all rural roadway lane miles in MO is state owned. This is above average, but in the middle 50 percent of all states in the country. Cut out the dense NE and sparse Wyomings of the country and it moves closer to the middle. Population density is a good predictor of highway lane miles per capita. Remove plains and mountain states and the northeast and you can explain almost all of the difference in the average states by pop density. MO comes out about 10 percent lower than expected, so when you factor this in, rural highway coverage, per person is pretty close to average. Those are just facts. Some Midwestern states have state rural roadway ownership as low as about 10%. IA is a good example. That looks efficient until you look at how they get there. 80 percent of all rural county roadway is either dirt or gravel, so the actual state coverage of what you and I would call “road” is much greater. IA also has farm to market highway funds they give in great numbers to the counties. While they don’t own the roads, the state makes significant outlays to support county roads. When you account for these sorts of differences, you understand that MO is pretty average in this respect. We live in a state that is more rural than average. Nationally, rural communities are net recipients for everything under the sun: entitlements, education, infrastructure, agriculture, military spending. You name it, they get it. You can complain, but again MODOT isn’t different than typical policy.

            Believe it or not, I agree that we should find ways to trim some of that back. I just don’t think going after rural subsidies in MODOT is going to get anyone anywhere. California isn’t particularly rural and look at who is winning fights over water there. It isn’t the urban group.

            Cost-benefit is useful, but it doesn’t work well for inelastic tangible and intangible goods because people are emotional about these needs: food, energy, security, healthcare especially. You can run all the cost benefit you want, but it will revert to a masochistic exercise of experts vs experts running different cbas with this external effect or another quantified to make their point (see: Affordable Care Act). In the end, no one will change their mind and the rural/conservative urban contingent will win because unlike the ACA, we don’t have a nervous group like Boomers nervous about healthcare to stem the tide.

            More feasible things: 1) rural county road programs are hurting. Wait to see which roads revert to gravel. Then rationalize the state roads around service corridors counties reveal as highest priority. It’s easier to sell maintenance reduction when counties themselves aren’t doung it in certain areas. 2) a cent or two hike to the gas tax in MO earmarked for primary connectors. 3) a national effort at carbon emissions focusing on large urban areas where this is becoming en vogue. An extra penny or two national tax for the fifty largest metros earmarked for transit investment in those metros.

            Politically, you’re not going to get much from the rural contingent (especially in a state like MO). I mean seriously, if you can’t get St Chuck on board, what makes you think you’re going to get MODOT reform from a guy in Joplin? Urban areas are better off devising new ways to go it alone.

          • A.J.

            What a spirited agreement! Although, I would argue being an “Average” amount of over-built shouldn’t be considered a good thing.

            You’re dancing around what I’m saying for whatever reason (I’m guessing Democrats don’t like being mean…please note I am a Democrat). “Urban areas are better off devising new ways to go it alone.” I see that way as using small government against the people who say they want small government and slashing the state income and sales taxes and those funds to use locally.

            By MODOTs own numbers in their 325 Plan: Only 20% of the system is deemed Primary and carries 80% of the traffic volume [page 6].

            We’re not just talking about a “slightly bloated system.” We’re well beyond the increasing marginal cost and the diminishing returns point we’re all made worse off by the current system as it steals funding from productive areas (and yes, some of those productive areas are rural) to subsidize projects with a negative ROI.

            I understand that it’s not a 1:1 lane mile to dollar tradeoff as infrastructure is more expensive to maintain in Urban areas. But MODOT could divest a significant amount of the 80% secondary roads in their system to the counties and quit using general fund revenues to prop up low user fees.

          • Nat76

            A minor point: 20% of the system for 80% of the traffic is based upon centerline mileage, not lane mileage, so traffic isn’t quite as skewed as the statistic cited.

            It is interesting that this works out to 80/20 (Pareto Principle), because the same utility curve exists in about everything (including private businesses). About 20% of your products will generate 80% of your revenue, and the 80/20 relationship is pretty resilient no matter how much you cut. Let’s say you cut out half of that 80% of less travelled roadway. There would be a “new 80/20” with the more efficient system where some of your original 20% drops to the less efficient 80%, but 80/20 still holds more or less. It’s not as easy as it looks, because cutting the less “efficient” impacts the efficiency of what is left.

            Tangible example using a well known restaurant (Crown Candy Kitchen). They might sell 100 different items, but 80% of their cash comes from 20 things. They could cut 80 items and theoretically end up with more profit, but a lot of people might not go without some variation of those 80 things. Taking this to extreme measures, if they cut out 80% of the remaining 20%, they’d be selling a chocolate malt, a BLT, Coke, and water, and I could never again convince my wife to go. It’s not a perfect example, but the same thing applies to other transit.

            Less than 0.5% of transit stops run by Bi-State are responsible for over 35% of the passenger service. This is the rail portion. But you need the primary arterial bus to drive the rail passenger count and you need to the secondary bus to drive the primary bus even though most people start a trip on rail or primary bus. That’s why the ROI of any given project/service line is a very tricky thing to measure.

            The 325 Plan you cite is actually doing what you want gradually over time. It’s the politically feasible way to do it and provides time for people to adjust economically to the new reality. Rather than pitting urban vs. rural interests on the legislative floor (good luck with that), supplemental routes will degrade over time with only general maintenance, and MODOT will be able to better determine what might be worth salvaging from that part of the service system as they track vehicle counts over time.

            I agree that economics needs to kick in at some point, but reducing this to a direct ROI computation ignores the secondary effects. Poor people generate no direct ROI. So do kids and older people. Public schools generate no direct ROI. Government gets a bad name because its primary purpose is to do things that really have no direct ROI. If projects generated a positive ROI, then the government wouldn’t need to do it, because private business would do it for us. Transit systems get criticized left and right because passenger revenue doesn’t generate a direct ROI, right? This is the same thing. The true ROI (direct and indirect) can still exist. The benefits are just accruing down the line to everyone.

          • A.J.

            It’s funny, to me, you call the 325 Plan as “Politically Feasible” when all it has been met with is doom and gloom and an attempt to increase the state sales tax and a MODOT propaganda campaign about “Tough Choices.” That’s what this article is all about. User fees do not cover very much of the cost of state roads. Combine that with a majority of general revenue coming from just three counties in the the state and MODOT’s unceasing desire for expansion.

            I’m all for government providing public goods to reduce the transaction costs for citizens (prime example, not having to own a car to get around). But we don’t even get to the point of trying to calculate break even.

            There needs to be an admission in this state, and all states for that matter, that we’ve collectively become cat hoarders with roads. Our happiness increased with more cats so we assumed getting more cats would only lead to more happiness. Well guess what? Now we have too many cats and because of that, the living conditions for all the cats has deteriorated and we need to get rid of some of the sicker cats in order for the other cats to be happy again.

            And as you correctly pointed out, population density should be the driver of service level because that’s where more users and tax base exist.

  • Nat76

    This reminds me of a study conducted by the Tax Foundation or a similar group a few years back. They looked at user fees as a percent of total street infrastructure and produced an estimate by state. IIRC, typically only about 40% of all expenditures were met by user fees.

    A couple of difficulties arise when assessing who is responsible for burden creation and wear and tear on roads, however. We all derive benefits from goods shipments, so a certain portion of the budget should be shared regardless, and as the study notes, the heavier the vehicle, the more wear. The nit I have with the PIRG study is the comparison between bike and vehicle wear. It is technically true, but it isn’t as if a road that gets resurfaced every ten years will suddenly last thousands of years if we only walked or rode bikes. Time and the elements take the biggest toll on a road. A parking lot or runway that has been abandoned for 5 years will look pretty bad even though no one is using it.

    • Chris Cleeland

      I don’t think that the wear issue is as you portray it, namely that the claim is that a road used only by bikes will be pristine. It’s an “all other things being equal” kind of measure. Relatively speaking, a paved section of road only utilized by a bike or something of equivalent weight will experience no wear due to vehicle use. Of course it will experience wear due to environmental issues, but so will a road used by heaver vehicles.

      I certainly don’t have a corpus of evidence to completely refute your last sentence, but can offer a few anecdotes that suggest it’s not as cut-and-dry as you suggest:
      (1) back in the late 80s and early 90s there was an abandoned subdivision on the east side of the airport. Roads were in very good condition. They were used for bike races every tuesday or wednesday night for years. Other than weeds, the roads suffered no ill effects until the ground underneath started shifting.
      (2) examine the roads in most parks which see very light duty use; the wear on them is substantially less than roads even immediately outside the parks.
      (3) look at something like the Riverfront Trail, which is paved using the same paving material on the roads. It has almost exclusively bike traffic (though a little construction traffic or fisherman traffic in certain areas). the places where there is construction traffic are far more worn than the areas which are exclusively bike.

      • Nat76

        We could argue around the edges, but the point I was getting at is that environmental constraints places a cap on maintenance advantages far below the actual damage done when comparing a mix of heavy trucks/cars, cars, and pedestrians/bikes.

        Simple assumptions that aren’t too far off the mark: Assume mixed heavy/passenger vehicle roads of a certain standard need to be redone every 12 years. Passenger every 24 years (like you would see in a residential neighborhood). Bike/pedestrian every 36 years. Every 72 years, you will need to repave the surface 2 regardless of who is using it. There would be 4 extra pavings (1 every 18 years) for heavy/light mixed traffic and 2 extra pavings (1 every 36 years) for passenger vehicle only. That’s not near the difference that the force/damage estimates by weight would indicate, because the environmental/geologic constraints place a cap on the capital outlay advantage. We could argue that trucks are 9, bikes are 50, etc, but the basic math still suggests the same issue.

        The passenger/pedestrian-cycling tradeoff is the more flexible piece but the maintenance advantage is much lower per mile. The big advantage here is fewer VMT per trip in walkable areas vs. passenger car oriented, ie, you don’t need to build as many roads per person in the first place, thus avoiding the maintenance cycle altogether.

        When you factor in that heavy trucks need to exist if you actually want to buy anything at a store ever again, then a big part of the extra damage and maintenance need (heavy/light vehicle mix vs. pedestrian/cycling) is something we are stuck with. Three ways to reduce the heavy truck maintenance cost: 1) reduce the VMT of trucks to get from manufacturer to distributor, distributor to retailer. Multimodal freight can help here some. 2) Make sure truck traffic is minimized on roads that are constructed primarily for lower weight vehicles, and 3) people need to stop buying so much stuff on the internet and actually get off their butt and to the store. 10,000 deliveries to houses imposes a lot more high weight street burden than relatively few semis pulling up to a grocery store.

        • Chris Cleeland

          Fair and valid points all. Even if we view it as you’ve suggested, it still doesn’t diminish the reason the data were presented in the first place, i.e., that cyclists don’t pay for road use. Moreover, I think it actually reinforces that, because if you look at VMT the largest share is personal vehicles. Since those aren’t subject to the trickle-down effects you’re willing to attribute to commercial vehicles (delivery trucks), the person who is driving their personal vehicle for any purpose is the one who does not pay his/her share of road costs and is, in fact, highly subsidized.