No doubt, mass production of the automobile is one of the greatest innovations of all times. It has allowed for increased mobility of goods and people, which has greatly improved productivity and leisure. But, is subsidizing mobility at the expense of taxpayers taking things too far?
In various blogs and forums, I frequently come across the argument that the costs of automobile use are fully (or mostly) internalized through gas taxes and fees. Often, this argument is used by free-market impostors against transit subsidies, or by automobile enthusiasts in defense of highway socialism. The usual argument is that the costs of roads and infrastructure are paid through gas taxes, and thus the users of the roads are funding what they use.
This is a powerful and pervasive myth that will continue to distort the truth, unless serious scrutiny is given to the assertion. Let us first examine the validity of the assertion through studies of the explicit costs (actual dollars) of roads in the US and the taxes and fees collected. Next, we will look deeper and discuss the implicit costs (ie opportunity costs) of roads and automobile use as well as acknowledge externalities involved with automobile use.
The Explicit Costs
Virtually 100 percent of the construction and maintenance costs are funded through user fees, primarily fuel taxes, collected by states and the federal government, and tolls collected on toll roads and bridges. (The claim that only 56 percent of costs are funded by user fees is based on the misinterpretation of a table that applies to all highways, roads, and streets, not just the Interstate Highways.) In the eastern United States, large sections of some Interstate highways planned or built prior to 1956 are operated as toll roads.
Mark A. Delucchi of The Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis has researched this topic extensively. According to one study, Do Motor Vehicle Users in the U.S. pay their way?:
I make a comprehensive analysis of all possible expenditures and payments, and then compare them according to three of the four ways of counting expenditures and payments. The analysis indicates that in the US current tax and fee payments to the government by motor-vehicle users fall short of government expenditures related to motor-vehicle use by approximately 20–70 cents per gallon of all motor fuel. (Note that in this accounting we include only government expenditures; we do not include any ‘‘external’’ costs of motor-vehicle use.) The extent to which one counts indirect government expenditures related to motor-vehicle use is a key factor in the comparison.
In the summary of the results , DeLucchi observes:
[C]urrent user payments probably are on the order of 80–90% of the associated government expenditures on MVIS.
[I encourage readers to link to other research on the matter in your comments - even if it dissents]
One could argue that simply closing the funding gap with higher fees and taxes would take more than 20-70 cents per gallon since the higher cost would reduce demand of driving and thus gas tax revenues. As DeLucchi states:
[A]n initial increase in the motor-fuel tax likely would reduce the quantity of motor-fuel demanded and thereby necessitate a further tax increase to compensate for the reduced volume of fuel subject to the tax.
Thus, we can clearly see that from a simple sources-and-uses analysis, roadway use is significantly subsidized above gas tax and fee revenues in the United States.
The Implicit (Opportunity) Costs
Looking only at the dollars going in and out is a simplistic way of looking at an economics issue. However, to fully analyze, we must look at the opportunity costs of resources and productive activity that is forgone in order for the government to provide roads. According to Nobel Laureate, James Buchanan, opportunity cost expresses “the basic relationship between scarcity and choice.” To ignore opportunity cost would result in a huge distortion in the perceived value of roads in society.
Land: Most empirical research looks only at construction and maintenance cost, which are easier to track. However, we need to consider that highways and roads take up a considerable amount of valuable real estate. If not used as roads, the land would likely serve some other productive use. It would be difficult to estimate what the opportunity cost of the land would be, but it certainly would be significant. Even more difficult to quantify is the forgone property tax revenue of the road land.
Consider land currently occupied as roads that could relatively easily be privatized for more productive uses. The most obvious example of this is street parking. In many instances, adjacent property owners could very profitably put street spaces to good use as seating for cafes, or landscaping and setbacks that improve home values.
Capital: Road construction is typically financed through tax-exempt bond issuance. This puts a burden on the borrowing ability of governments for non-road spending, and diverts capital from non-exempt private investments in competitive capital markets.
Taxes: On top of lost revenue from tax-exempt bond issuance and property taxes, the fact that roads are not private means governments forgoes taxing a private operator of the roads as it would tax other private enterprises. Instead of being a source of corporate tax revenue, roads themselves drain government resources.
Environmental and Other Externalities
One externality we can see plainly is the value of properties along highways, between nodes. Because of noise, air quality, and other externalities, homes typically don’t locate along highways. (although commercial uses pop up at critical nodes) As a result, this land is usually left undeveloped or used by location-insensitive industrial firms who keep land costs low. The extent highways hurt nearby property values would be very difficult to estimate nationwide, but certainly significant.
It is even more difficult (and contentious) to quantify the environmental externalities involved with road use, and costs of defense of US oil interests. So, I’ll leave that discussion for another time, if I ever dare to touch it. But, for your reading pleasure, at the extreme, one study estimates the subsidies and external costs of oil use to be $5.60 to $15.14 per gallon! I am very skeptical of this study, but it does open discussion to many of the subsidies and externalities that could be considered in thoughtful examination.
Total gas tax and fee revenues fall short of funding total road expenses in the US. This gap widens when considering opportunity costs before even considering externalities. What’s the proper solution? Just raise the gas tax and let politicians battle over the right amount to cover opportunity costs and externalities? Or even better: privatize the roads, and let the market sort out the optimal use of roads for automobiles. (And when I say privatize, ideally I wouldn’t leave highways as a tax-exempt, public-private partnership. Let roads compete in the marketplace with all other goods and services on a completely level playing field.)
also check out:
streetsblog – Highway Funding: The Last Bastion of Socialism in America
Environmental Economics – Social cost of gasoline
Greg Mankiw’s Blog – The Pigou Club Manifesto: Raise the Gas Tax
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