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Editorial: Who Pays for the Roads? Funding Bicycle Infrastructure is a No-Brainer

Note: The following editorial was written for the Sept 29th issue of BANG! This version is slightly longer and annotated.  Elly Blue of Grist and BikePortland published a similar article recently, and I’ve added some of her perspective to mine.  You can read her incredible article here.

A Silly Question

One of the biggest debates that we see in the transportation world is whether we should spend money on car infrastructure or bike and pedestrian infrastructure. It’s a common debate, but it’s also silly.  It’s silly because those two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive – good bike infrastructure benefits cars and vice-versa. It’s also silly because the debate compares apples to oranges, or more aptly: huge friggin’ GMO hydroponic tomatoes to tiny cherry tomatoes.  Car infrastructure is expensive, and bike infrastructure is cheap.  Ridiculously cheap.  Funding bike infrastructure is the best value per dollar for improving all types of transportation in Eugene.  It provides for safe and attractive bike and pedestrian facilities which remove cars from the road and relieve congestion.

If you don’t drive a car, even for some trips, you are subsidizing those who do — by a lot. … To balance the road budget, we need 12 people commuting by bicycle for each person who commutes by car.

- Elly Blue @ Grist

Consider this: Portland’s entire 300 miles of bike infrastructure – including bike lanes, paths, and bike boulevards, costs the same as one mile of urban highway.  That’s 60 million dollars, if you want real dollar amounts.  60 million dollars for one mile!  For the cost of just two miles of urban freeway, Eugene could catch and pass Portland and become the most bike friendly city in the country. This is why any debate around whether or not to fund bike infrastructure is so ridiculous.  Cyclists want only pennies compared to what car infrastructure gets.

Let’s use the new bike and pedestrian bridge over the Delta Highway as an example of how ridiculous this debate is.  It cost about 3.5 million dollars and was paid for by federal and state stimulus money.  This is money that could not legally have been used to fill potholes in Eugene – yet there was an onslaught of letters to the Register-Guard berating the City of Eugene for spending money on a bike bridge instead of fixing the roads. Roads that, ironically, are in bad shape because of cars being driven on them.

The Delta Bridge Dedication Ceremony

The Sept 11th Delta Bridge Dedication Ceremony

The City had a bit of extra money from the grants after they finished the bridge. This created controversy because they decided to use a small amount of this “left-over” money on public art and other bridge improvements, despite the fact that the majority of the left-over money did go back to the state.  In fact, the “extra” improvements (many had originally been planned but removed from the project due to early budget issues), like a traffic island to help people cross Goodpasture Island Road, maintenance-saving powder coated railings, and improved lighting, only cost $320k. The sculpture was only $100k, which left $1 million to be returned to the state.

Ten times the cost of the sculpture was returned to the state, and the sculpture was only 2.9% the total budget of the bridge.  The entire Delta Ponds Bridge was 1/17th the cost of one mile of urban freeway, and the sculpture was 1/600th the cost. Yet we still had people complaining. (read more on the Delta Bridge here)

I took a look at all the grants and projects that have come across my desk since WeBikeEugene.org launched last Spring and one thing is clear:  we have to scrape and beg for grants to fund bike/ped projects that cost only a fraction of the money that goes towards motorized transportation, all while constantly defending the projects from a public that’s quick to criticize.

…bikes have used the roads in this state forever and have never contributed a penny. The only people that pay into the system are those people who buy motor vehicle licenses and registration fees.

Representative Wayne Krieger (R-Gold Beach) promoting his 2009 failed mandatory bike registration bill.

Oh well, big deal you might say.  Cars pay for the roads, right?  Roads are paid for with gas taxes, right?  If bicyclists want infrastructure they should pay their own way, right?  Bullshit.  We already do.

Let me be clear: Gas and vehicle taxes don’t pay for the roads.  It’s hard to nail down an exact figure for Eugene, but in most places barely a third of local road funds come from vehicle usage fees.  Most of the funding is from general and property taxes (including federal) – taxes that everyone pays.  Also, according to a 2008 Bicycle Transport Alliance (BTA) survey, 89% of bicyclists in Oregon also own and drive cars, which means they pay gas and vehicle taxes as well.

Elly Blue’s article puts the percentage of local roads funded by vehicle fees at closer to 11.5%

The cost of building, maintaining, and managing traffic on these local roads adds up to about 6 cents per mile for each motor vehicle. The cost contributed to these roads by the drivers of these motor vehicles through direct user fees? 0.7 cents per mile. The rest comes out of the general tax fund.

In fact, when you consider the damage done to roads by cars compared to minimal damage done by bikes, it turns out that bicyclists are paying way more than their fair share for the roads.  For instance, untaxed studded tires cause 50-60 million dollars in damage to Oregon roads every year. According to an ODOT staffer, “studded tires can cut the lifetime of a paving project in half.”  Unfortunately, bicyclists suffer the most from bad, potholed roads, yet cause virtually none of the damage.  Car drivers should be thanking us, not yelling at us to “get off their roads.”

Blue puts it more elegantly, and uses actual numbers:

The average driver travels 10,000 miles in town each year and contributes $324 in taxes and direct fees. The cost to the public, including direct costs and externalities, is a whopping $3,360.

On the opposite pole, someone who exclusively bikes may go 3,000 miles in a year, contribute $300 annually in taxes, and costs the public only $36, making for a profit of $264. To balance the road budget, we need 12 people commuting by bicycle for each person who commutes by car.

Despite this, only 1% of the Oregon transportation budget is required by law for bike/ped projects.  The Portland percentage is slightly better at 1.5% (possibly 4% under their new budget), despite 17% of Portlanders biking regularly for transportation and ~ 6 % commuting to work by bicycle.

Multi-use paths crack and deteriorate due to their use by utility vehicles, emergency vehicles, and gigantic lawn mowers – not because of bikes.  Multi-use paths are not eligible for funding by gas tax.

Eugene has a greater cyclist mode share than Portland (10.8% commuting to work by bicycle), but calculating our spending is tricky.  Much of our city money goes towards pavement preservation, and how do you break down the cost of repaving a road that has bike lanes by mode share?  If you figure in all the transportation spending in the metro area, including ODOT’s I-5 bridge projects, our bike/ped share comes in at 2.2%.  However, the City of Eugene spends around 15% of their transportation dollars on bike/ped projects, depending on how you count bike lane repaving and what projects are happening that year.  For example, in 2009 5% of the capital projects funding was spend on bike/ped projects, whereas in 2010 the number is 14% – the difference mainly due to the availability of special grant funding.  Gas taxes do not go toward capital projects.

Bike infrastructure helps everyone.  Every bike on the road is one fewer car at a stoplight and one fewer car taking up a parking space at the store. Better infrastructure = more cyclists.  More cyclists = fewer cars. Fewer cars = less congestion for the remaining cars.  Investing in bike infrastructure is hands down the best value possible for improving all forms of transportation in Eugene.

bikes have used the roads in this state forever and have never contributed a penny. The only people that pay into the system are those people who buy motor vehicle licenses and registration fees.

3 comments to Editorial: Who Pays for the Roads? Funding Bicycle Infrastructure is a No-Brainer

  • Kevin

    Now I’m going to have to start dragging sharp metal objects behind my bike to feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.

    I have to admit that I had a similar “wow.. ok” reaction to seeing the new bike bridge – not because I think that bikes don’t deserve awesome bridges, but because it seems like such a random place to put such a nice bridge.

    I had a similar reaction to the fancy I5 bridge.

    Now I know the truth – there is some kind of secret ultrapowerful group of cyclists who live in the Ferry Street Bridge area and they’re spending all of our tax dollars on their fancy fancy bridges!

  • Thanks for this. Illuminating information. If only some of those people who wrote those letters to the editor actually knew this.

    So the Delta Ponds bridge cost $3.5 million. Guess how much that I-5/Beltline flyover they built a couple of years ago cost? $72 million. And traffic only goes one way on it.

  • Great article. It seems to me that a lot of anger and finger pointing comes from ignorance. I would love to see more clear thinking and relevant facts get out to the public. It would be wonderful if some local news outlets did a series of informative articles, etc. on topics such as this one. Even some PSAs that merely said ‘hey drivers, you are not paying your fair share. say thanks to the cyclists for pitching in.’