September 4, 2004

The Cost of Driving

I'm always astounded when conservatives complain about "public subsidies" for mass transportation, because it's so inconsistent -- none of them seem to mind our massive tax subsidies for road construction and maintenance. (Well OK, even some mass-transit haters balked at the multi-billion-dollar Big Dig pricetag. But that doesn't seem to sour them on the general concept of public funding for private automobile travel.)

I'm not even talking about the endless billions we pay in defense money to keep a presence in oil-rich Middle Eastern nations, or the medical costs we all end up paying because of air pollution-related diseases (not to mention the health costs of living a lifestyle where nobody walks anywhere anymore). I'm talking about our tax money going directly for road construction, repair and maintenance.

Barnard College Professor Owen D. Gutfreund notes in a New York Times op-ed piece today:

There is a mistaken notion that American drivers pay for their roads through gas taxes. Actually, even though states collect gas taxes and a modest federal levy was imposed to pay part of the Interstate expenses, the total of these charges never amounted to more than one-third of highway costs. Such taxes, adjusted for inflation, have actually decreased, and efforts to increase them are politically risky, even though each 1-cent rise in the gas tax costs the average driver less than $8 a year. In practice, our roads and highways have been underwritten by general taxation. With gas taxes and tolls capped by effective lobbying, this annual subsidy has grown, amounting to billions of dollars annually.

With driving so generously subsidized and the true costs hidden, Americans have driven more and more miles each year.

It sometimes appears to cost less to drive your car than take the train, but that's because you're not paying anything close to the real costs of that automobile trip.

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