In The Public Interest: Busting the 'User Fee' Highway Myth

01/04/2011 04:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ever wonder why the roads and highways in our cities keep getting bigger and wider while public transportation, rail, and bike paths are left behind, even now when gas prices are rising and oil use is a major national concern?

Part of the reason is a deeply-held misconception that roads "pay for themselves," with gasoline taxes and other "user fees" while the other means of transportation are reliant on government handouts and subsidies.

It's not true.

Highways do not - and, except for brief periods in our nation's history, never have - paid for themselves through the taxes that highway advocates label "user fees." Yet highway advocates continue to suggest they do in an attempt to secure preferential access to scarce public resources and to shape how those resources are spent.

The Great Myth of highway funding isn't just inaccurate. Mistaken views about roads being "paid for" leads to excessive construction of new and wider highways. Investments in public transportation, bike routes and pedestrian paths meanwhile get shortchanged because they are viewed as requiring subsidies.

To have a meaningful national debate over transportation policy - particularly at a time of tight public budgets - it is important to get past the myths and address the real, difficult choices America must make for the 21st century. Toward that end, a new report from U.S. PIRG, Do Roads Pay for Themselves? Setting the Record Straight on Transportation Funding debunks a number of age-old falsehoods:

• Gasoline taxes aren't "user fees" in any meaningful sense of the term - The amount of money a particular driver pays in gasoline taxes bears little relationship to his or her use of roads funded by gas taxes.

• State gas taxes are often not "extra" fees - Most states exempt gasoline from the state sales tax, diverting much of the money that would have gone into a state's general fund to roads.

• Federal gas taxes have typically not been devoted exclusively to highways - Since its 1934 inception, Congress only temporarily dedicated gas tax revenues fully to highways during the brief 17-year period beginning in 1956. This was at the start of construction for the Interstate highway network, a project completed in the 1990s.

• Highways don't pay for themselves -- Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called "user fees" by $600 billion (2005 dollars), representing a massive transfer of general government funds to highways.

• Highways "pay for themselves" less today than ever. Currently, highway "user fees" pay only about half the cost of building and maintaining the nation's network of highways, roads and streets.

• These figures fail to include the many costs imposed by highway construction on non-users of the system, including damage to the environment and public health and encouragement of sprawling forms of development that impose major costs on the environment and government finances.

To make the right choices for America's transportation future, the nation should take a smart approach to transportation investments, one that weighs the full costs and benefits of those investments and then allocates the costs of those investments fairly.