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If user fees were the deciding factor, cars would be kept off roads

March 14, 2013

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Cranky Thursday

At last Thursday’s Planning Commission study session on 8th Street there was a small debate about bike lanes on a portion of the Street that is currently a four-lane, posted 25-mph, half-mile long stroad zone smack in the middle of the City. It is a major east-east corridor. By all accounts, it is a dump, there is no other way to say it; it serves no one well and is a resource liability for the city’s property values. I think that is something we can all agree on.

Why bike on 8th? Access & economics.

We’ve already debated bike lanes on 8th Street, both on this blog back in 2010 and in the community over the last 30 years. The last two master plans actually specifically called out for improved bicycle facilities on 8th Street. We started experimenting with bike lanes on 8th Street back in 2009 with a re-striping of the eastern section near Munson Ave–the world did not implode. People are already biking on 8th Street, by law and ethics of public space, they have that right, so the question needed is:

How do we design for people, walking or biking, as if they belong? As if they are respected citizens? 

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User fee mythology

Something else came out of last week’s short, and civil, debate discussion (UpNorthMedia). A fellow planning commissioner raised the specter of users fees and suggested that the City needs to focus its spending on those paying for the roads.

The argument being, I suppose, that bike lanes are purely niceties and since people on bikes don’t pay for the roadways, well, they can remain after-thoughts. As one might suspect, I took issue with this because, mainly, the user fee myth is just that–a myth.

My April guest commentary for the Traverse City Business News dives into the socialized benefits we receive as drivers more directly, but a few quick items are instructive  First, in Michigan for 2010 expenses on roadways, user fees only paid for 29.9% of the road spending (TaxFoundation). This is slightly below the national average of 32%. That’s a 70% subsidy in the state that comes from taxes we all pay regardless of how we get around. It comes out of sales taxes, property taxes, and other revenue that isn’t already dedicated to any specific government service. Locally, we only have to look at the currently mothballed W. Boardman Lake Ave. project, which would use captured property taxes to build the entire 2-3-million dollar in-town by-pass.

The subsidy we all pay to ensure that cars can move around our communities is well documented.

A report from the Strategic Planning Director (UDEL) for the City of Milwaukee back in 1991 found that, “If the city’s total costs relative to cars, more than $400 per vehicle, were directly charged to car owners, property taxes on a $50,000 house would be reduced by approximately $500.” Put another way, if user fees on cars actually were to pay for the pavement, streetlights, roadway enforcement, and needed storm water treatment, our property taxes could theoretically be reduced.

A similar 2011 study in Wisconsin found that the average household in the cheese state pays $779 annually in general taxes that go towards roads (SSTI-PDF). This study, and many others, are referenced in a report published by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute titled, Whose Roads? Evaluating Bicyclists’  and Pedestrians’ Right to Use the Public Roadways (VTPI-PDF).

In this report, Litman compares two neighbors, one who only drives 10,000 miles a year, and another who bikes 3,000 miles a year. After explaining the research on the different mode choice costs imposed on society (per mile, 29.3¢ for automobile, .9¢ for bicycle, and .2¢ for walking), he compares how much they 1) either over-pay or, 2) under-pay, and are thus being subsidized by those who over pay relative to what their personal choice costs society.

costs2
Ultimately, public streets are not pay to play
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It needs to be said, the gas tax was not enacted as a user fee. Nationally, it has traditionally been raised as an excise tax to lower the deficit (states have local rules). The roadway pavers have spent many decades trying to pitch it as a user fee because, well, what agency wouldn’t want its own dedicated funding source. Unfortunately, that idea still resonates with many despite the facts and the math.
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There are many reasons to change the character of the 8th Street corridor, accessibility for all users is just one of them. Chiefly, as I will try to discuss next week, it is really about the economic strength and sustainability of Traverse City’s budget. We no longer can rely solely on growth for growth sake, we need efficient and valued development that achieves more for our community.
That is something I, and I’m sure many others in the city, don’t have a problem seeing our taxes go towards.
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Your  comments,considerations, or concerns? 

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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are that of the author and do not represent the opinions of writers previously published here or any of the organizations, committees, commissions or other affiliation the authors may belong to, unless so stated. 

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