Indirect costs of driving add to inefficient system of motor transportation

Riders' fares barely make a dent in the cost of buying and running buses. Cyclists pay nothing in gas taxes — at least when they're on their bikes — and, therefore, nothing for the roads they use.

Both of these situations are highly irritating to motorists who see their taxes subsidizing forms of transportation most people don't even want.

"If the bus or whatever product were in adequate demand, people would be spending their own money on it,'' one reader of the Times' Web site wrote about a recent column on the county's decision to turn down a federal grant for new buses. "DeWitt is (as usual) wrong because government spending isn't free.''

Okay, but guess what?

Rolling down the highway in one of the main symbols of American free enterprise, the car, is a also a subsidized activity, not that different from riding a bus or, for that matter, drinking a $1.29, corn-syrup sweetened, 2-liter bottle of soda.

Well, maybe not that bad. Not even people like me — people who love bikes and at least the idea of mass transit, and pray for some cleaner, more efficient system than 250 million petroleum-powered personal vehicles — should compare highway funding to the insane handouts given to agribusiness.

The 37 cents per gallon Florida drivers pay in federal and state gasoline taxes do indeed fund most major road projects. Most of us drive, so most of us benefit. And even those of us who don't drive depend, for example, on goods that travel by truck. Until something better comes along, we all need roads.

Still, a closer look reveals a system that keeps the cost of highway miles artificially low and therefore rewards the least efficient mode of travel, said Dennis Scott, the pedestrian/bicycle coordinator for the state Department of Transportation.

In a way, the more you drive, the more you save.

First of all, local governments get road money from a variety of sources. Nearly half of Hernando's transportation funds are raised through impact fees and property taxes — $6.5 million compared to $7.9 million from fuel taxes — and it was much more than half during the height of the building boom, when the county collected about $8 million in annual transportation impact fees.

Zoom out, and you can see lots of indirect costs of driving, such as lost work productivity due to traffic congestion, illness from car-related air pollution, and troops needed to protect the flow of foreign oil. Add all direct and indirect costs of driving to the price of fuel, one study found, and it would cost $8 per gallon, Scott said. "The subsidies to driving are huge.''

Is it as high, by percentage, as subsidies to public transportation? No, but these have the advantage of reducing overall transportation costs.

Persuade 10 percent of the population to ride buses or bikes, for example, and we could postpone for years such projects as the widening of State Road 50 from four to six lanes, which will cost at least $18 million per mile, said Dennis Dix, the county's transportation planning coordinator.

So next time you see cyclists conscientiously sticking to their designated lanes (which, by the way, are not primarily built for bikes but for driver safety and improving the life­span of the road surface) don't honk or wave a fist.

Salute them for saving your tax money.

Indirect costs of driving add to inefficient system of motor transportation 04/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 3, 2010 1:46pm]

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