Do roads pay for themselves? That's the question posed by a new report from the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG). The organization’s conclusion? A resounding no. Since 1947, researchers have found that the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the funds raised from gas taxes and other user fees by $600 billion, "representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways." In fact, as of 2007, fees charged to motorists covered only about half the cost of building and maintaining the country’s roads. The rest is financed with other taxes and bonds.
Beyond the numbers, the report further discredits highway advocates’ oft-repeated claim that, from a budgeting standpoint, roads are self-sufficient. The problem isn’t really that roads don’t pay for themselves. Rather, it’s that their advocates sometimes wrongly insist that they do, all in an effort to justify roadway construction at the expense of other forms of transportation like mass transit. "People want to keep this myth of user fees and self-supporting roads," says Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst at U.S. PIRG who co-wrote the report. "It sort of privileges roads as a spending item."
That's a dangerous claim to perpetuate, especially at a time when budgets are tight. But it's been an effective way to ensure that roads and highways get preferential access to funding. "Often when people come up with proposals on how to change transportation spending," Baxandall says, "a big ending of conversation about reform is to say, 'You can't do that. The gas tax money is a user fee, which is dedicated for a particular purpose.'"
That line of reasoning makes even less sense considering that the Highway Trust Fund -- which gets its money from the gas tax -- has been supplemented with more than $34 billion in federal general fund revenue since 2008.
The report is something of a shot across the bow at groups like the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) and others that advocate for highway spending -- though that's not how they see it. "It's like taking a shot at an aircraft carrier with a pea shooter," says Jeff Solsby, a spokesman for ARTBA. "The reality is these guys live on another planet." Solsby takes particular issue with a part of the report that notes that the nonmonetary cost of highway expansion -- such as environmental damage, the proliferation of sprawl and a heightened dependence on fossil fuels -- is absent from their supporters' calculations of cost. "It's creating a new mathematical model nobody else uses," Solsby says. "It's trying to create a new set of rules to the game."
But in some ways, that’s exactly U.S. PIRG's point: The game is broken. "One of the reasons our voice is very different is we don't have a dog in the fight of how big aggregate transportation spending should be," Baxandall says. The existing model ensures that highway projects have a guaranteed funding source, regardless of whether there are priorities elsewhere. "The bottom line is we should spend the dollars where they're going to get the best bang for our buck," Baxandall says. "From that standpoint, it doesn't really matter where the dollar originated."