The Pew Charitable Trusts looked at highway revenues and found that they fail to cover highway costs. Only 51 percent of the cost of highways came from user fees in 2007, says Pew.
According to a Pew data file, 2007 highway user fees totaled to $98 billion while “non-user revenues” spent on highways totaled to $70 billion and another $25 billion came from bond issues. I’ve checked Pew’s source data (table HF-10 from Highway Statistics) and the numbers are accurate.
However, the Antiplanner has a few quarrels with Pew’s interpretation of the data. Most important, Pew counts as “user revenue” a number that the federal government identifies as “highway user revenues used for highways,” which in 2007 was $97.9 billion. But users actually paid $124.5 billion. Just because federal and state officials diverted most of the different to mass transit and non-transportation related funds doesn’t mean they aren’t paid by users.
Not counting these diversions as user fees would be like the bank foreclosing on your house even though you had made all the payments because, they say, “We decided to divert 20 percent of your payments to limousines for our top officials, so you are behind in your payments.”
Another problem: among non-highway revenues, Pew counts bonds and interest on investments. But these will mostly be repaid out of or are paid on deposits of user fees, so it is inappropriate to group them with non-user fees.
The Antiplanner compares total user revenues — $124.5 billion in 2007 — with the non-user revenues — property taxes, general fund appropriations, and other taxes and fees, which added up to $55.6 billion in 2007. By this calculation, 69 percent of 2007 highway costs were paid out of user fees, down from 85 percent in the late 1960s.
While the Antiplanner opposes all subsidies, I also have to point out that these subsidies are pretty small on a per-passenger-mile basis. American highways carried 4.96 trillion passenger miles in 2007, which works out to a subsidy of 1.1 cents per passenger mile.
That compares with about 26 cents per passenger mile for Amtrak and more than 60 cents per passenger mile for transit. Airline subsidies work out to about a penny per passenger mile. See this paper for calculations and data sources.
The Pew release points out that federal gas taxes have not increased since 1997. But the feds have pretty much kept spending within revenues, while most of the subsidies come at the local level. In 2007, for example, the federal government collected $5.2 billion more in highway user fees than it spent on highways. Local governments provided $34.5 billion in subsidies to highways, while state governments provided only $3.8 billion. Any fix to subsidies must come at the local, not federal level.
For those of you who are data junkies, I’ve posted a spreadsheet that has all the HF-10 files from 1921 through 2007. Rows 1 through 45 have the years 1921 through 1956. Rows 50 through 90 have the year 1957 through 1998. The remaining years are in rows 95 through 137. Note that the format is slightly different in the 1921 through 1956 tables.
Happy Thanksgiving! Probably no more posts for the rest of the week. If you are in DC, don’t forget to register for and attend the debate next Thursday, December 3.