Do Roads Pay for Themselves?

US PIRG has a new report, asking Do Roads Pay For Themselves? (and answering: “Setting the Record Straight on Transportation Funding”)
As with most advocacy work, most of the facts are correct, the issue is in the spin. It is well known that “roads” do not pay for themselves, most local streets and roads are paid for from general taxes (esp. property taxes) and most roads are local (and most travel is local). The question is really ‘do “highways” pay for themselves?’, which the answer is much more difficult. Unfortunately the authors loosely interchange the terms “highways” and “roads” to suit convenience. They are different, they serve different purposes, and they are funded differently. If cars suddenly vanished, we would still need roads, just as we had roads before the advent of the automobile. They might be narrower, there might not be highways, but there will always be roads.
The authors have a heterodox history of the gas tax (but seem to emphasize the federal over the state, which is a common fallacy in all national transportation discussions, promoted by those based in Washington. If the federal government’s role in transportation funding disappeared, it would take years to really notice out here in the country, since DC funds new projects, which would just stop being built, resulting in no change to existing infrastructure.)
The authors have an interesting take on the term ‘user fee’, suggesting that gas taxes aren’t really user fees because (a) they were sometimes used for deficit reduction, (b) they are shared with other surface transportation (transit), and (c) they don’t correspond with use. While I don’t like either diversion, that doesn’t mean that gas taxes aren’t user fees, just that Congress can’t avoid meddling. Just because gas taxes imperfectly measure use (i.e. it is proportionate to gasoline consumption instead of miles, it is assessed on travel on all facilities, not just highways), doesn’t mean it is not highly correlated. It is a surrogate, as are most fees. They are charged only to users of motor vehicles (admittedly only those users who use fuel, but that is approximately all users at this stage of technology). It would be better if user fees (preferably tolls if transactions costs could be reduced, but gas taxes in the interim) covered all costs of operating and maintaining existing streets, roads and highways, so we could depoliticize the issue, and treat it like the public utility it is. It would be better if the charge could vary by location and time of day, it will eventually do so.
User fees as the primarily source of funding is certainly economically feasible (i.e. we could raise the gas tax and cover all the costs if we so chose in the US), but politically we are not there yet, as politicians still have a fear of being unelected.
Financing new roads and highways is a separate problem from maintaining the existing. They should not be conflated.

Land Use and Transport in China

The new issue of the Journal of Transport and Land Use focuses on China:

Land Use and Transport in China by
Chris Zegras

China motorization trends: New directions for crowded cities by
Wei-Shiuen Ng, Lee Schipper, Yang Chen

Residential location, travel, and energy use in the Hangzhou Metropolitan Area by
Petter Naess

Compulsory convenience? How large arterials and land use affect midblock crossing in Fushun, China by
Wendy Tao, Shomik Mehndiratta, Elizabeth Deakin

Review of “Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory” by
David King

Peak Travel

An article in Miller-McCune on Peak Travel, following up on a paper by Adam Millard-Ball and Lee Schipper (who has a recent paper on the lack of “Peak Travel” in China in the most recent issue of the Journal of Transport and Land Use .
We have discussed this idea before, noting that number of cars in US has peaked, VMT in the US has peaked, and so on. So it is no surprise here. (In fact Ajay Kumar and I suggested in 1995 that “with rates for female labor force participation near saturation, the disproportionate rate of growth for traffic volume should be nearing its end.”)

David Metz has a blog and book on this topic The Limits to Travel. This has been a featured topic in a Long Bet.