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Roads: America's $600 Billion Subsidy

So much for the myth that roads pay for themselves through the form of gas taxes and tolls. A recently released study from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group claims the answer is a resounding "no" as it's revealed that road construction has sucked $600 billion out of American taxpayer's wallets since the creation of the interstate system.

Published January 11, 2011 in Transit      25 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


Since 1947, American highways have run up a deficit bigger than $600 billion, in 2005 dollars. Source: U.S. PIRG

- First, let’s dispense with the idea that the gas tax – the primary source of financing for federal transportation projects – is a user fee. “If you go to a state park and pay the fee to get in there, that’s a user fee,” report author Dan Smith, U.S. PIRG’s transportation associate, told Streetsblog. “If you’re driving down the road and you have to pay the toll for driving on that specific road, that’s a user fee.” But people also pay gas taxes to fill up their lawnmowers. And those lawnmowers don’t usually end up on the highway. Just because you fill your tank doesn’t mean you ever drive on the roads funded by the gas tax you pay.

- Then there’s the huge contradiction underpinning the core arguments for highway expansion. Do new roads cut congestion, or do they “pay for themselves”? Highway lobbyists try to have it both ways, but the truth is that neither of these propositions hold water. Highway expansions are often justified as projects that relieve traffic and, believe it or not, reduce pollution. So if a highway widening achieved its stated aims, it would cut congestion and fuel consumption, which would mean fewer gas tax dollars and roads that don’t pay for even a fraction of their construction costs. However, we know that new highway capacity doesn’t actually reduce driving – it induces more driving. The additional traffic created by expanding highways does generate more gas tax revenue, but still not enough to come close to covering the costs of new roads.

- The argument that drivers pay for roads might be somewhat more credible if they weren’t taking money away from other public funding streams. Gasoline is exempt from sales taxes in 37 states and the District of Columbia. So rather than paying into the general revenues for the state, motorists are paying into an already narrowly prescribed pot of funding, which highway advocates want to see prescribed even more narrowly to exclude transit and bike/pedestrian projects.

- Tolls are, indeed, an honest-to-goodness user fee, charging drivers directly for the road they’re driving on. But the overwhelming majority of roads are not funded by tolls. Local streets don’t have tolls. Rural highways don’t often have them. And tolls don’t come close to covering the costs of roads. According to U.S. PIRG, “In the 1950s, experts estimated that no more than 9,000 miles of highway (compared with the more than 3 million miles of highway in existence at that time) could support themselves with tolls.”

- The report goes into ancient history (the Hoover administration), investigating the original intent of the gas tax at both the state and federal levels, and debunking the myth that they were always intended to pay only for highways. Indeed, federal gas taxes originated in the 1930s and were dedicated exclusively for highways only for a 17-year period, starting in 1956, covering the construction of the interstate highway system. Since 1973, the gas tax has been used for a variety of transportation programs and has even been used, on occasion, to pay down the deficit.

And now the obvious: You can’t measure all the costs of driving with the price of asphalt. The U.S. PIRG report gives a laundry list of external costs associated with driving, including:

* Changes in the risk of accidents, including injuries to non-drivers and damages to property.

* Environmental and public health impacts, including smog, greenhouse gases, water pollution from highway runoff, and the impacts on wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts.

* National security and economic implications of protecting access to foreign oil.

* Increased pressure on those without cars.

* Quality of life and the impact of roads on active transportation, such as walking and biking.

* Car-centric development patterns, sprawl, and the resulting infrastructure costs for the expansion of water, sewer, and other services.

Read More:’t-pay-for-themselves/

Full Report PDF:

Moral Of The Story

Think twice before assuming investing in alternative forms of mobility won't save taxpayers money.



January 11, 2011, 07:30:17 AM
I've been wanting to see something like this for a long time.  Thanks for posting it.


January 11, 2011, 08:41:14 AM

I'd just thought that I'd lead the mandatory "Ock-like" charge against highways, and sprawl for the fun of it. LOL


January 11, 2011, 09:15:35 AM
They figured out they could create a lot more industries if we all had to drive our own separate vehicles. Road crews, traffic police writing tickets for all kinds of infractions, insurance companies, bank loans, gas stations, oil changing places, constant maintenance, tires, car lots, parking garages, hell, the people that have to scrape up dead bodies off the roads after accidents, etc etc etc. All done to squeeze even more out of the commoner.

Judge Doom: A few weeks ago I had the good providence to stumble upon a plan of the city council. A construction plan of epic proportions. We're calling it a "freeway".

Eddie Valiant: Freeway? What the hell's a freeway?

Judge Doom: Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena. Smooth, safe, fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past.

Eddie Valiant: So that's why you killed Acme and Maroon? For this freeway? I don't get it.

Judge Doom: Of course not. You lack vision, but I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off, off and on all day, all night. Soon, where Toon Town once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food. Tire salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it'll be beautiful.

Eddie Valiant: Nobody's gonna drive this lousy freeway when they can take the Red Car (streetcar) for a nickel.

Judge Doom: Oh, they'll drive. They'll have to. You see, I bought the Red Car so I could dismantle it.


January 11, 2011, 09:18:52 AM

The US Public Interest Research Group (also known as PIRG) is a political lobby non-profit organization in the United States and Canada, composed of self-governing affiliates at the state and province level. Its fundraising arm is the Fund for Public Interest Research ("the Fund").

Mission statement

U.S. PIRG is the National lobbying and grassroots arm of the State PIRGs, a Federation of Statewide Non-Profit, Non-Partisan public interest advocacy organizations.

"U.S. PIRG is an advocate for the public interest. When consumers are cheated, or the voices of ordinary citizens are drowned out by special interest lobbyists, U.S. PIRG speaks up and takes action. We uncover threats to public health and well-being and fight to end them, using the time-tested tools of investigative research, media exposés, grassroots organizing, advocacy and litigation. U.S. PIRG's mission is to deliver persistent, result-oriented public interest activism that protects our health, encourages a fair, sustainable economy, and fosters responsive, democratic government".[1]


January 11, 2011, 10:21:17 AM
Does anybody think this country would be better off if we had never built the Interstate Highway System? I sure don't. This report almost seems to argue that we should have never built interstates.

Building endless amounts of roads is not the answer to fixing our problems, but a metropolitan area should have a solid road infrastructure in place if it wishes to be economically successful. The Tampa Bay metro area is really paying today for lack of road infrastructure investment over the past 45 years.


January 11, 2011, 10:30:03 AM
I think the report doesn't question whether the Interstate Highway System should have been built in the first place.  To me, it just puts everything in its proper place by proving that major road construction is heavily subsidized.  That's something many tend to overlook.

north miami

January 11, 2011, 10:33:54 AM
Our own area DOT spokesperson Mr.Goldman is learning to refrain from referring to upcoming "improvements" that "are just like Atlanta".

The 'driver' behind the proposed Northeast Florida beltway was an erroneous but very successful promotion of Brannon/Chaffee as "alleviation" for Blanding Blvd.

Who recalls Mayor Delaney's press conference quotes that we could not build ourselves out of congestion?? Indeed that comment period was brief-Delaney soon after placed a major hand on Beltway accommodation matters.

The list is a strip of asphalt extending to the horizon.

(By the way- have been exploring one of the largest roadless areas in the Southeast-and by roadless I mean not even a maintained forest trail.Less than an hour from Downtown;Osceola National Forest Pinhhokk Swamp region.Multiple adjoining square mile sections and many other sqaure mile sections only glanced by dirt road,and the 'swamp' actually hard packed sand and accessable,fat tire bike riding on the roads that meander near the roadless expanse quite amazing-I am not suggesting this as some common ideal but the feel of such a roadless area is profound)


January 11, 2011, 11:00:37 AM
Does anybody think this country would be better off if we had never built the Interstate Highway System? I sure don't. This report almost seems to argue that we should have never built interstates.

Building endless amounts of roads is not the answer to fixing our problems, but a metropolitan area should have a solid road infrastructure in place if it wishes to be economically successful. The Tampa Bay metro area is really paying today for lack of road infrastructure investment over the past 45 years.

Who's to say that rail couldn't have accomplished the same exact thing for cheaper (for construction/maintenance costs & costs to the average consumer)?

What is a road?? Its basically just an artery for a vehicle to travel on to get to places. We already had these arteries in place (rail) that pretty much went everywhere back then (even rural areas), it was the best in the world actually. Could you imagine what it could have been now if we didn't ditch the whole thing for our cars, had left it alone & kept updating it?? You could have basically walked out your door & had access to the entire city/country. All without having to have 2 car payments, without having to pay for insurance, without having to keep filling up the tank, without constantly maintaining them, and most importantly, without endangering you/your family's lives every time you leave the house.

So do you understand the reasoning now of why we did what we did?? It's all about money & getting the most bang-for-the-buck out of every citizen.

No one's saying roads shouldn't have been built, but cars should have been the secondary (or even third) mode of transport to get people to places that the rail lines simply didn't/couldn't go. Instead, we've made them the primary without any alternative whatsoever.

US Railroad 1918


January 11, 2011, 11:12:57 AM
I am one of those who believes that cars did not cause suburban sprawl or highways, but rather the opposite.

I believe that universal automobile ownership and use was caused by sprawl and the construction of roadways at the expense of other transit modes.

For example, most people don't realize that the original push for decent and smooth roads was not to accomodate the automobile.

It seems incomprehensible to modern day bike riders, but the road system was designed and built primarily for bicycles.

It was called the "good roads movement"

The Good Roads Movement occurred in the United States between the late 1870s and the 1920s. Advocates for improved roads led by bicyclists turned local agitation into a national political movement.

Outside cities, roads were dirt or gravel; mud in the winter and dust in the summer. Early organizers cited Europe where road construction and maintenance was supported by national and local governments. In its early years, the main goal of the movement was education for road building in rural areas between cities and to help rural populations gain the social and economic benefits enjoyed by cities where citizens benefited from railroads, trolleys and paved streets. Another important motivation was they wanted to ride their bicycles on good country roads.

The Good Roads Movement was officially founded in May 1880, when bicycle enthusiasts, riding clubs and manufacturers met in Newport, Rhode Island to form the League of American Wheelmen to support the burgeoning use of bicycles and to protect their interests from legislative discrimination. The League quickly went national and in 1892 began publishing Good Roads Magazine. In three years circulation reached a million. Early movement advocates enlisted the help of journalists, farmers, politicians and engineers in the project of improving the nation's roadways, but the movement took off when it was adopted by bicyclists.

Groups across the country held road conventions and public demonstrations, published material on the benefits of good roads and endeavoured to influence legislators on local, state and national levels. Good road advocates involved themselves in local politics. Support for candidates often became crucial factors in elections. Not only advocating road improvements for bicyclists, the League pressed the idea to farmers and rural communities, publishing literature such as the famous pamphlet, "The Gospel of Good Roads."

New Jersey became the first state to pass a law providing for a state to participate in road-building projects. In 1893, the U.S. Department of Agriculture initiated a systematic evaluation of existing highway systems. In that same year, Charles Duryea produced the first American gasoline-powered vehicle, and Rural Free Delivery began.

At the turn of the twentieth century, interest in the bicycle began to wane in the face of increasing interest in automobiles. Other groups took the lead in the Good Roads Movement. As the automobile was developed and gained momentum, organizations developed such cross-county projects as the coast-to-coast east–west Lincoln Highway 1913, headed by auto parts and auto racing magnate Carl G. Fisher, and later his north–south Dixie Highway 1915, which extended from Canada to Miami, Florida.

The movement gained national prominence when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal-Aid Road Act on July 11, 1916. In that year, the Buffalo Steam Roller Company of Buffalo, New York, and the Kelly-Springfield Company of Springfield, Ohio, merged to form the Buffalo-Springfield Company, which became the leader in the American compaction industry. Buffalo-Springfield enabled America to embark on a truly national highway construction campaign that continued into the 1920s.

Horatio Earle is known as the "Father of Good Roads." Quoting from Earle's 1929 autobiography: "I often hear now-a-days, the automobile instigated good roads; that the automobile is the parent of good roads. Well, the truth is, the bicycle is the father of the good roads movement in this country." "The League fought for the privilege of building bicycle paths along the side of public highways." "The League fought for equal privileges with horse-drawn vehicles. All these battles were won and the bicyclist was accorded equal rights with other users of highways and streets."


January 11, 2011, 11:24:29 AM
Here is the guy who is responsible for the public construction of roads.  It obviously isnt a coincidence that he was from michigan, and ran for mayor of detroit.

After building the concrete roads, and developing a midwestern system of zoning that is still called Euclidean Zoning after Euclid Ohio, it stands to reason that the US automobile industry would naturally develop in the city and state of the originator of concrete roads.

Another factoid in support of the zoning and infrastructural causes of the rise of the Automobile.

Horatio Sawyer Earle (1855–1935) is known as the "Father of Good Roads" or simply Horatio "Good Roads" Earle.

    * 1898: Appointed by Edward N. Hines, Chief Consul of the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) Michigan Division to chair a Good Roads committee.
    * 1899: Unanimously elected Chief Consul with a platform to eliminate bicycle racing from the League and push the Good Roads Movement.
    * 1900: Elected to the Michigan Senate as an LAW candidate.
    * 1901: Introduces a Michigan Senate Resolution which creates a State Highway Commission and is subsequently elected as chair.
    * 1902: Proposes the Federal Government create an interstate highway system. Founds the American Road Makers (later to be renamed the American Road Builders Association (1910), and since 1977, known as the American Road & Transportation Builders Association).
    * 1903: Appointed Commissioner of Highways by Michigan Governor Aaron T. Bliss.
    * 1905: Introduces State Reward Road legislation, which creates a State Highway Department currently known as the Michigan Department of Transportation (M-DOT).
    * 1906: Introduces legislation that creates the Wayne County Road Board whose initial members are Cass R. Benton, Henry Ford, and Edward N. Hines.
    * 1908: Loses gubernatorial Republican primary.
    * 1909: Creates the World's first mile of concrete road on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.


January 11, 2011, 11:26:35 AM
A plaque honoring Earle's efforts is located in a government building complex in Lansing, Michigan, directly west from the Capitol along the "mall" that corresponds with Michigan Ave. The plaque is located northwest of the footbridge that crosses Walnut.

    HORATIO EARLE -- In 1905, the year the State Highway Department was created, Michigan roads were quaqmires of sand, mud, and clay that trapped horse-drawn vehicles and early automobiles alike. Bicycle clubs, such as the Leagues of American Wheeelmen, led the effort to "reform" roads nationwide. In Michigan, the first state highway commissioner, Horatio "Good Roads" Earle (1855-1935), a bicyclist himself, vowed to conquer "the Mighty Monarch Mud." A former sate senator, Earle served as state highway commissioner until 1909. Known as "the Father of Good Roads," Earle helped open the state to commerce and tourism. Monuments were erected in Cass City and Mackinaw City in his honor. Although aprecciative, Earle stated "the monument I prize most is not measured by its height, but its length in miles". Registered state site No. 688, 2005 Erected by Employees and Friends of MDOT in its Centennial Year, 2005


January 11, 2011, 11:30:27 AM

The History of the
League of American Bicyclists

By Barbara Sturges, League Member

The League began as the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) in 1880, and was responsible for defending the rights of cyclists from its start. The League of American Wheelmen is credited with getting paved roads in this country before the reign of the automobile.

By 1898, the League of American Wheelmen had more than 102,000 members including the Wright Brothers, Diamond Jim Brady, and John D Rockefeller! The League has had its ups and downs --- it actually ceased to exist on two occasions, but was resurrected each time. Since its most recent revival in 1965, the League (renamed the League of American Bicyclists in 1994) has focused its programs on education in addition to advocacy.

To join the League or for any questions, call 202-822-1333 or write


January 11, 2011, 11:37:01 AM



January 11, 2011, 12:17:54 PM
^^^ the photo above.
I understan the overland bridge is in poor condition and should 95 south should carry 3 lanes continuously not including exit ramps beyond Nira St through to Emerson.


Is Hendricks access below, from the Main St bridge viaduct closed and/or planned to be closed?

WHY is the HUGE Kings Ave monorail station and garage cut off from direct vehiclular entry out of downtown by this closure?

Captain Zissou

January 11, 2011, 01:53:04 PM

Where we're going we don't need roads.


January 11, 2011, 05:08:13 PM


January 11, 2011, 06:39:45 PM
thank you roger duh wabbit.


January 12, 2011, 12:45:09 AM
Interesting read, but technically ALL tax based public services are subsidized. Medicare, Medicaid, Defense, Highways, Transit, the list goes on.

The desire for good roads goes back to the dawn of man. The Romans needed them, the Germans needed them, and yes, a demand for better roads actually went out during our English Colony days. So even the Americans needed them.

So to try to establish that this is some recent thing is somewhat an unusual exercise in making an extreme point.

Early American days there were many discussions on what was the preferred way to travel, toll roads (called turnpikes back then) or building canals. No cars, just horse buggy or long boat.

As far as sprawl is concerned, there were concerns that interurbans in the early 1900's contributed to suburban sprawl by allowing people to live distant from their workplaces. So thinking that cars is the root of all sprawl problems is very short sighted and ignores many other issues that contribute to the big picture.

This article isn't really about cars or highways or sprawl, it's about current cultural norms and how much it costs to maintain them and if they are sustainable. A valid argument for sure, but misdirected by looking at just one activity and assigning it as the root cause.


January 12, 2011, 06:44:25 AM
The value in this article is to provide a researched response to the arguments of rail opponents when they claim that rail doesn't pay for itself.  Highways don't pay for themselves either - at least not when looked at from a user-fee (gas tax) perspective.

Gasoline is exempt from sales taxes in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

The Better Jax Plan paid for much of the recent roadwork here through a 0.5 cent sales tax.  I did some quick research and from the best I can tell, Florida is one of those 37 states (perhaps someone can find a definitive answer and post it).  If that is the case, then none of the money collected by BJP for roads is a result of user fees.  It is all coming from purchases of items other than gasoline.


January 12, 2011, 07:41:12 AM
A history lesson for those questioning why interstate highways were built. The primary user for the "Eisenhower Highway" was intended to be the US Army, not the common citizen. With the advent of the cold war after WWII and the threat of nuclear attack and/or possible invasion by communist forces the military needed a rapid way to move men and material rapidly over long distances. The hedge row country of Europe during WWII was a valuable learning experience on how an army can bog down without good roads. Belt ways were built around major cities in case a nuclear blast made the city area impassible. Long sections of straight road would be runways for aircraft. Why not move by rail you ask? Because most major rail junctions were, yep you guessed it, close to targeted downtown areas. So essentially, the interstate highway system was a strategic asset that now serves other uses.

north miami

January 12, 2011, 10:18:36 AM

Excellent comment Trainman (above) re Military aspect.I have been waiting for someone to post a note on that aspect.

          "Roads are the mother's milk of development"-  Peter R.    St.Joe ("Paper Company"......)


January 13, 2011, 04:16:57 PM
Interesting read, but technically ALL tax based public services are subsidized. Medicare, Medicaid, Defense, Highways, Transit, the list goes on.

Wow you mean we've been living with "socialism" all this time?  ;)

Funny how people are so worried about what they perceive as socialism now with Obama......


January 13, 2011, 04:57:45 PM
Funny how so many socialist misunderstand what socialism is.

"Socialism is an economic and political theory advocating public or common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources."


January 13, 2011, 05:01:40 PM
Funny how so many socialist misunderstand what socialism is.

"Socialism is an economic and political theory advocating public or common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources."

exactly, not now.  Like the roads.
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