How Roads — Not Transit — Are Sending Wisconsin to the Poor House

This article originally appeared on Buffalo Rising and was reprinted with permission from the author, Rust Wire friend David A Steel.

A recent report by a group called 1000 Friends of Wisconsin shows that roads in that state are not fully paid by fuel taxes and other road user fees. The report blows a giant whole in the claim by pro sprawl lobbyists (at least in Wisconsin) that roads are fully funded with road taxes paid by road users through tolls, gas taxes and other road use fees. In truth it seems that the life line of sprawl, more and more roads, is one of our biggest government subsidies. Following is a summary of the report’s findings:

MYTH – Roads in Wisconsin are fully paid for by users through fuel taxes.

FACT – Roads in Wisconsin are heavily subsidized by all tax payers even if they don’t drive. The report notes that roads in the state cost an average of $4.24 billion annually. Of this, $1.74 billion came from revenue sources unrelated to road use–primarily property and sales taxes–while another $600 million was borrowed. Depending on how the borrowing is paid back the cost of roads in Wisconsin is paid for between 41 – 55 percent by sources other than the direct users.

MYTH – Roads in Wisconsin are being short-changed in Wisconsin because road funds are diverted for other uses such as public transit or social programs.

FACT – Although money is intermingled from various sources the truth is that roads are a net beneficiary of tax revenues by by a large margin. The report states that each year tax payers chip in $779 per household in non user based taxes. By comparison road user taxes (gas tax) is diverted to Transit and other uses by the amount of $50 and $30 respectively. The report estimates that Wisconsin could fully fund its roads by raising the gas tax by 50 cents per gallon or imposing more road tolls.

1000 Friends of Wisconsin is a group founded in 1996 by a diverse group of people “to become the citizens’ voice for sound land use”. Their mission is to “…advocate and promote uses of land, water and air that shape healthy communities where people want to live, work, and play. Our work focuses on helping communities make the connection between our everyday land use and transportation decisions and our state’s economic, environmental and cultural health. Their vision is “A Wisconsin comprised of livable, environmentally friendly, compact, healthy and prosperous communities through three main strategies:

1. Promote and advocate beneficial land, water and air use policies.

2. Evaluate and update implementation of Smart Growth Law.

3. Educate and market Smart Growth concepts through Green Tier Communities.”

So, before you go dismissing the findings of this group as libbbrrrrlllll hogwash you should also note that another group in Ohio has come to a similar conclusion in their transportation cost study (see PDF). Similar studies are also under way in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. I am betting they show similar results. Raw data for all states can be found in this PDF.

Still not convinced that roads do not pay their way? The conservative Winsconsin group Wisconsin Policy Research Institute recently released a report that recommends highway tolling as a fair way to pay for expected massive highway modernization costs. The report notes that “Wisconsin already has a $1 billion per year highway funding gap. The total $26.2 billion cost of this Interstate program is far beyond the ability of current transportation funding sources to handle. Federal and State fuel tax revenues, the largest source of transportation funding, are in long-term decline in real, or inflation-adjusted, terms, and a portion of Wisconsin’s vehicle registration fee revenue is now committed for several decades to paying debt service on transportation revenue bonds issued since 2003 to cover funding shortfalls.”

This report did not go as far as to suggest that drivers actually pay for all roads but there really is nothing more conservative than asking users to pay their own way. Let’s start asking those who choose sprawl to actually pay for sprawl.

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