California Roads Are Massively Subsidized

Feb 27th, 2011 | Posted by

Thanks to Spokker for pointing out this study from Subsidy Scope, showing the sources of road funding in all 50 states. Here’s the breakdown for California:

State funding
User fees: 38%
Non-user revenues: 7%
Bonds: 2%

Local funding:
User revenues: 1%
Non-user revenues: 31%
Bonds: 3%

Federal funding: 18%

Those percentages are based on funding between 1995 and 2007. California spent a total of $190 billion over that time. And as you can see, only 39% came from user revenues. Perhaps it’s as high as 57% if all of the federal funding came from the federal gas tax, but even then that’s just barely more than half.

The upshot is clear: we massively subsidize driving in California, as wel do across the country. Users absolutely do not pay the cost of the roads. Property and sales taxes help pay not only for maintaining the city streets in your neighborhood, but often for freeway construction projects – almost always sales taxes, like Orange County’s Measure M, or state bond money repaid out of the state’s general fund, itself funded by the full range of taxes Californians pay.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It isn’t. Subsidies are fine. But HSR critics and opponents like Florida Governor Rick Scott are telling us that we shouldn’t build HSR because of the extremely remote chance that somehow it will require operating subsidies, unlike virtually every HSR line currently in existence (the Acela included). A 39% farebox recovery rate is pretty low even by most passenger rail standards, yet we don’t bat an eye at it for freeways.

Ultimately this isn’t a question about evidence, but about perception. Nobody notices the subsidies for roads because there’s general social agreement that roads are necessary. That agreement isn’t there for passenger rail – whether for ideological reasons or whether because they won’t admit the 20th century is over and that Americans want to ride trains, HSR critics and opponents see rail as a frivolous and unnecessary expense.

You only have to go to your nearest gas station to know that’s not true. Gas prices keep rising. During the Great Recession, prices in California have only rarely dipped below $3 per gallon – which was an unheard-of price before 2006.

We have an extensive road network, and it needs to be maintained. In fact, in many places we don’t actually spend enough to maintain it. But that shouldn’t come at the expense of investing in our future via electric passenger trains. And besides, unlike roads, it’ll cover its own operating costs.

UPDATE: Clem’s right, the chart really should be included:

  1. Alex M.
    Feb 27th, 2011 at 21:03

    Facts like these suggest to me that the lawmakers opposed to HSR have ulterior motives. Their argument that it might require subsidies obviously doesn’t work.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    There are a variety of reasons for this; purchase by oil interests is one variation, and is perhaps the most notorious (but also perhaps the most overrated). Others, based on personal observation, include technical incompetence and ignorance, and cowardice.

    I had one such person, a state senator , exhibit this in an inquiry as to whether we should use tolls to pay for certain roads, as well as an increase in gas taxes just to get road revenue up to an adequate level. His reply was, “You’re right, D—-, but we can’t do that. We would lose the next election if we did what you suggest, and then we couldn’t work on other useful things because we wouldn’t be in office.”

    He sounds like the unnamed French politician who displeased Winston Churchill, who is supposed to have said of him, “He’s trying to figure out where his people are going so he can lead them there.”

    Wad Reply:

    If they like their roads and want them, you’re not going to shame them into doing otherwise.

    We’re now in the phase where the justification for roads is to pour concrete in order to keep away funding from alternatives (namely, HSR).

    Sadly, with the emergence and establishment of teabaggery as a political force, roads are now an expression of identity politics.

  2. Clem
    Feb 27th, 2011 at 22:00

    Robert, you should put in the bar chart, it really speaks volumes. Also highlight the fact that road spending in California amounts to about $15 – 20 billion per year. The next time somebody trots out the but-but-but the children, the schools, the firefighters, we’re broke type of argument–unleash the actual numbers.

    Eric M Reply:

    Yeah and if you break that down per person a year, the naysayers who freaked out and said it will cost $3500 per every person that lives in California to build the HSR line, looks like peanuts compared to how much is spent per person on roads in CA “a year”. A lot more 0’s.

  3. Spokker
    Feb 27th, 2011 at 22:22

    The counterargument is that roads benefit everyone, which is true. I can’t imagine a successful nation without a robust road network.

    The counterargument to that is that while roads benefit everyone, fostering a culture that drives way too much doesn’t benefit everyone. A good local road network will get products from the train yard to the store, which is what they usually say, but it shouldn’t be built to encourage people to live in Rancho Cucamonga and drive alone to work in Downtown LA on a freeway that was paved over mostly low-income ethnic neighborhoods, and have that whole trip not only not pay for external social costs, but be subsidized to boot. That’s on top of the cost of car ownership in the first place. So if a poor person whose neighborhood got paved over does want to get in on subsidized roads, they must hurdle over the large cost of entry.

    But when they throw down bus lines or rail lines to help provide mobility to the poor neighborhoods that were paved over (otherwise called mitigation), many drivers cry foul over transit not paying for itself, that money was diverted to transit. That’s the hypocrisy of it all.

    It makes sense to me to separate the benefits of a good road network from the costs of driving the way we do.

    Victor Reply:

    Some want something for almost nothing, Even though It never will be nothing, Only the Sun, Rain and Air are Free, Everything else costs money, Especially Roads, As You already know of course.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    There’s a huge difference between paved roads and rural super-highways. Vancouver barely has any freeways in the city proper, and the same is true of London, Paris, and Seoul.

  4. Spokker
    Feb 27th, 2011 at 22:30

    Let me illustrate this point.

    “freeway that was paved over mostly low-income ethnic neighborhoods”

    Look at the Eastside of Los Angeles:,+6611+Hollywood+Blvd,+Los+Angeles,+California+90028&ll=34.045548,-118.189888&spn=0.045018,0.090895&z=14

    It is practically boxed in by highways. These were built in the 50s and 60s when people without political power were living there. I think it’s proper to fund transit infrastructure in such a place with user revenues paid by drivers.

    This freeway, however, was not built.

    Victor Reply:

    Actually part of SR2 was built as a Freeway and I’ve driven on It and It does connect with a few other Freeways, But then It is known as the Glendale Freeway, It just doesn’t reach down to the I10 Freeway in Los Angeles, As It stops just short of there at Glendale Blvd and connects to I10 via Alvarado Street.

    Joseph E Reply:

    The “Beverly Hills Freeway” was a planned extension of the 2 freeway, BEYOND 101. It would have gone along Santa Monica Blvd (Resulting in demolition of some houses and businesses) thru the center of Beverly Hills and West LA. It was stopped by local opposition during the 1960’s and 70’s.

    Victor Reply:

    There’s also another planned freeway, It was SR90, Parts of which exist, On both ends, One is now known as the Marina Freeway near Culver City CA(Used to be the Richard M. Nixon Freeway at one time) and the other(uncompleted) end is over in Yorba Linda CA, I think that one was a precursor to the I105 Freeway possibly. The western end was stopped by a Cemetery or at least was pointed at one, Sounded like they were running out of ideas as to where to put these new Freeways.

  5. peninsula
    Feb 27th, 2011 at 22:38

    a supremely moot point – absolutely not convincing to the voters of california in the least. Voters approved Prop 1A, on the absolute condition that HSR operations would not be subsidized. They do not value the utility of HSR enough to subsidize it. Period. So unless you’re suggesting a vote to repeal prop 1A – its a moot point for HSR in the state of California. You’d be better off spending your time figuring out ways that Corcoran to Bakersfield will operate at a profit, aka figure out a way to get state of californina to appropriate bond funding for their lie of a project.

    Paulus Magnus Reply:

    And since when has the Authority suggested that they will be running revenue service upon that segment or cease further construction of the high speed rail system beyond that initial segment?

    Joe Reply:

    Heh, Peninsula makes a good argument for building HSR to SF and not stopping in san jose – that SJ to SF segment would be a real “cash cow” destination for HSR riders.

  6. Paulus Magnus
    Feb 27th, 2011 at 23:35

    Is this data restricted to highways or is it including local surface streets as well? If the latter, it is a useless metric of comparison. I’m also not sure how that chart squares with Caltran’s annual highway budget being around twelve billion.

    Spokker Reply:

    Here’s their analysis of highways:

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I think it excludes surface streets, even while counting gas taxes generated from surface streets as user fees for highways. The reason is that the data ultimately comes from the FHWA, which says total local property tax funding of highways is $8 billion nationwide, which is too low.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Remember that highways are Interstate, National, State, County and Township highways, so its municipal surface streets that are excluded, but it includes rural roads that people would not automatically think of as “highways” ~ the same roads that are excluded from receipt of the Federal highway funds generated by traffic operating on them.

  7. Joseph E
    Feb 28th, 2011 at 00:27

    These figures actually underestimate the subsidy for roads. There are at least 4 things missed: interest on bonds, deferred costs, reduced taxes, and lost value of land:

    1) Bonds are paying for over 10% of road construction, and the interest will be paid back out of general taxes. The real cost of those bonds will be twice as high when they are repaid, which makes current road costs look cheaper today.

    2) Even assuming these charts include local roads, most cities are deferring maintenance on streets and bridges. There are billions of dollars of streets that will need resurfacing now, or total reconstruction later, and bridges are even more expensive to fix.

    3) Wide roads hurt land values, reducing property tax. Sure, you need public right-of-way to sell a house or business, but even many of our “residential” streets are much wider than they need to be, due to the “free” parking provided out front, or redundant alleys in the back. With narrower streets designed for walking and bikes, 1/2 that land could be used for buildings or green space. And freeways are much worse; they actually depress land values due to noise and pollution.

    4) Land used for freeways is property-tax-free. This is a minor issue in the Central Valley, where those acres of land would otherwise be used for agriculture, but a huge cost in cities. Imagine how much the square blocks in Downtown LA would be worth if not used for the 110 or 101 freeways, perhaps a billion dollars? And if developed with offices and homes, that land would pay property tax, and induce other tax revenue.

    Howard Reply:

    Roads are also paid for by developers as part of the project, as part of a development agreement or through a traffic impact fee. This not a subsidy but a fair share payment to mitigate traffic impacts to roadways.

    synonymouse Reply:

    AFAIK Palmdale real estate developers aren’t paying an extra penny for the deviation.
    Massively subsidized.

    Al Reply:

    This brings up a question– what do railroads pay in property tax? I’m under the impression that the existing private railroads do pay tax, but not so much (on account of Prop 13). Will CA HSR pay property tax on the land it buys for tracks?

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    CAHSRA will likely not pay property tax, as it will be a government entity. In that respect, it will be like the road system, except the impact will be smaller because a railroad is usually skinnier.

    I don’t know what the figure for property tax for railroads in California is, but I seem to recall Gil Carmichael (former Amtrak board member and former auto dealer, and now a big rail promoter) once estimated the property tax cost for the rail freight industry nationwide to be on the order of $500 million per year, for which they received no direct benefit.

  8. Joseph E
    Feb 28th, 2011 at 00:33

    Robert, the chart up there is wrong. That’s the chart for Alabama (hence, only 2 or 3 billion a year); California spends over 16 billion a year on highways (190 billion from ’95 to ’07), per the chart at:

    You might need to do a screen capture, I can’t figure out how to link to California’s chart specifically.

    I wonder if that 16 billion only includes “Federally Eligible” highways, which are 32% of the total miles. If that’s the case, the real cost would be almost twice as high, assuming that most of the remaining miles are city streets, and the subsidy would be over 75% of total road funding in California, including the local levels.

    Clem Reply:

    Paging Robert. Wrong chart is displayed.

  9. Jerry
    Feb 28th, 2011 at 00:34

    As it has been suggested before. Use highway money to build the railroad underpasses. That eliminates crossing accidents and speeds up the traffic.

    Jerry Reply:

    Or overpasses.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Building and maintaining roads has been a governmental responsibility since Rome. Two millennia. Get over it; the public wants it that way. Roads could be privatized and they would make money. Toll roads are profitable. A great part of the US economy revolves around the automobile and peripherals – think how many jobs are involved with supporting internal combustion “mobility”? If there ever were a questionable auto subsidy it was the bailout of GM and Chrysler. But that sailed right thru. You are wasting your time jawing about the primacy of the auto.

    Besides there are more egregious subsidies – like em-effing Urban Removal or the practice of governments at all levels to attract business by providing amenities free or forgiving all taxes. At least the general citizenry, not just favored tycoons and their companies, gets to use the “subsidized” highways.

    BTW the CEO of 3M is now threatening to move his company out of the US because he is unhappy with Barack. He is probably angling for a “subsidy”.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    Building and maintaining free street parking has, however, not been a millenium-old government responsibility. Indeed, paving and maintaining free parking for private motor vehicles is less recent than public subsidies for the establishment of intercity rail transport, so on your “how long have we been doing it” argument, the free parking goes before the subsidy for rail goes.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Building and maintaining transportation has been a government responsibility since before Rome. They maintained ports, aqueducts, sewers and the odd canal here and there.

    tony d. Reply:

    “Toll roads are profitable”. So will our high-speed rail system.

    Paulus Magnus Reply:

    SR 125 went bankrupt. That doesn’t strike me as being very profitable.

    synonymouse Reply:

    The CHSRA will lose money from the get-go. Once the patronage machine installs its house unions labor costs will go thru the roof. See BART and Muni.

    Here’s a question for those who know a lot more than yours truly. How much tilt can the pylons on those PB stilts exhibit before they have to be torn down? AT 220mph I would have to assume the alignment would have to be near perfect. The expert commentary about the 6+ quake in Christchurch was that modern buildings that were still standing but had taken damage would have to be torn down. I just love PBspeak; Tejon is a no-no but stilts are groovy.

    Historical note: 1906 was around 75 seconds long.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    They have earthquakes in Japan. They have elevated railroads in Japan. They don’t fall down.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Remember the Cypress domino?

    Toward the end of 75 seconds of 8.0, to quote the Beach Boys in “Barbara Ann”, them PB aerials would be “rocking and a rolling, rocking and a reeling”

    “2012” has some nice special effects of an LA elevated freeway doing a fanciful apocalyptic domino.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    They won’t be building the Nimitz. They’ve learned a bit in the past 60 years, newer building are less likely to fall down in earthquakes.
    They have earthquakes in Japan. They have elevated railroads in Japan. They don’t fall down.

    On the other hand there aren’t many long tunnels that have been subjected to earthquakes……Why you think that will be a trivial exercise but building earthquake resistant viaducts, which exist all over the world, will be a problem, is something I won’t ponder.

    Peter Reply:

    They recently had an earthquake in Taiwan. Nearly the entire HSR line is elevated. It didn’t fall down.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Apparently modern buildings in Christchurch that were built to current California seismic standards will have to be torn down. And that was in a 6. Plus even without seismic the stilts need maintenance or become inadequate. Rumor has it that BART will have to rebuild theirs to accommodate mandated heavier equipment.

    Seismic Japan has stilts but no tunnels? Please. And, according to the Quantm study there is evidently a way across Tejon that crosses both the San Andreas and the Garlock at grade.

    And to top it off maglev could probably climb Tejon at grade. Since PB insists on a segregated system and monorail worthy infrastructure, why not go maglev. It could not be any more screwed up than BART, especially if the Japanese run it hands on.

    The CHSRA backroom deal is nothing more than a TEE on stilts. In short order the top
    speed will be cut back; maintenance will be deferred: operating losses will balloon.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    no maglev because maglev costs too much to build and has no operating record to gauge it;s maintenance costs.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Maglev costs more than PB Stilt-A-Rail? That remains to be seen. With PB’s concrete-happy support infrastructure and operational segregation I question just how wide is the differential. We now know that China’s steel on steel hsr low construction costs are in doubt due to graft.

    Is maglev ready for prime time – apparently the Japanese Central Railway thinks so and is willing to put up its own money to deploy. A more germane question is whether California is ready for steel on steel hsr maintenance? The answer is a resounding no. We can discern from BART what California union maintenance is capable of and not capable of? BART’s noisome noise levels provide a clear example of what the hsr will be like. California is not Japan or Switzerland – the hsr and its equipment will wear out in no time – a bigger crappy BART. You will enjoy plenty of steel on steel noise with flat wheels and corrugated rails on hollow core stilts.

    Maglev will at least be a whole lot quieter.

    Joey Reply:

    Rumor has it that BART will have to rebuild theirs to accommodate mandated heavier equipment.

    Forgive me for saying this, but this, if true, would be an excellent opportunity to ditch the broad gauge/proprietary everything that BART has, and replace it with something more sensible. But do you have a source for this?

    synonymouse Reply:

    OPB on the Altamont site has mentioned the issue of BART having to go to heavier cars in the future to meet new requirements stemming from the WMATA wreck. The WMATA cars are structurally weak and similar to BART cars. Apparently it is at the in-house study level and I assume would depend a lot on just how serious the feds are about more crash resistant equipment. Generally stronger equates to some extent to heavier.

    J. Wong Reply:

    In what way are the proposed aerials for CA HSR similar to the Cypress double-decker freeway, besides the obvious fact that they are both aerials? There were precise reasons that the Cypress structure suffered catstrophic collapse, mostly because they were two decks without sufficient engineering support of the top deck.

    wu ming Reply:

    i find it both fitting and hilariously surreal that you are citing the movie 2012 as supporting evidence for your claims.

    Joe Reply:

    “the day after tomorrow” disproved global warming!

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    They have elevated railroads in Japan. They don’t fall down.

    Yep. Elevated railroads Japan never ever fall down.

    And elevated highways in Japan don’t fall down either.

    Before all those aerials came crashing down, Japan was thought to have world-class engineering, until Mother Nature said otherwise. BART is now spending billions to retrofit its aerials, but concedes that will do little to prevent their core network from being decimated for better part of a year when the Big One hits.

    The moral of the story is: don’t build aerials near fault lines if you don’t have to.

    Paulus Magnus Reply:

    Do you have any factual reason to suppose that labor wages would be higher than Amtrak’s rather than conspiracy theory mongering?

    synonymouse Reply:

    In order to enjoy Amtrak wages you would have to turn Stilt-A-Rail over to Amtrak. If you contemplate that eventuality you should insist on compatibility with existing Amtrak operations. In other words diesel.

    The Pelosi patronage machine is the prime mover behind the CHSRA scheme. Militant unions, such as at SF Muni and BART, are her hardcore faithful. They will insist on being rewarded with the hsr plum and their compensation demands will be such that Charlie Sheen will seem like a most reasonable man by comparison.

    With compensation packages derived from BART and Muni the CHSRA’s payroll will consume most of the budget, leaving little for maintenance.

    Paulus Magnus Reply:

    Got it, nothing more than fever dreams of a diseased mind behind your claims.

    synonymouse Reply:

    And just how did BART get overrun by militant unions? Just who is going to stop them from organizing the hsr? Jerry Brown? Gimme a break.

    jimsf Reply:

    Where do you get the idea that bart unions are “militant”?

    Wad Reply:

    Legally, every worker has the right to organize a union.

    HSR, or its operator, should be preparing for it. Transportation remains one of the most union-dense sectors of the U.S. economy. It will be all but impossible to keep out unions.

    Plus, wages can be measured by productivity. The HSR workers could earn a lot of pay and benefits, but they could be relatively underpaid depending on passenger loads.

    For instance, HSR workers could be underpaid relative to flight attendants. If an HSR steward made the same money as a flight attendant, yet an HSR train handles more passengers than a jet, the HSR steward is more productive than the flight attendant. This is almost 100% certain, as the train will make more stops and turnbacks will be much shorter.

    In other words, HSR workers will make the same money but do more work.

    jimsf Reply:

    If the high speed railroad is union labor it will likely be standard railroad unions, not transit unions. The wages for passenger and freight now are fairly equalized. The passenger clerks for example have the exact same contract as the freight clerks. The starting pay is a little higher than starbucks in san francisco, and the top pay is a basic living wage…. only if you live outside new york or the bay area. In addition to that you get a standard ppo/hmo type health plan, like most decent employees offer. And you pay a couple hundred bucks a month for that and another 60 bucks for dues. You also pay into your own pension and you don’t get matching funds for your 401k unless you are in management. Theres nothing overblown, militant or outrageous about any of it. People work for the railroad for a number of reasons, the least of which is the hourly wage. Its just a lifestyle choice. There’s a lot perks and options in where you can work and what kind of hours you can work and the hundreds of different kinds of crafts you can perform over a career.

    I think bart has gone on strike once, or twice in almost 40 years. Doesn’t sound very militant to me.

    synonymouse Reply:

    That’s because whenever they threaten to strike some worthless unmentionable of a vile crooked machine politico intervenes in the “negotiation” and compels BART management to capitulate.

    What BART and Muni union guys are good for is calling in sick and then working some ot.

    **** them and the horse they rode in on.

    wu ming Reply:

    romans drove cars on highways?

    Paulus Magnus Reply:

    It would explain the speed and success of the legions.

  10. Ben
    Feb 28th, 2011 at 04:01

    Don’t forget that the federal highway trust fund has needed to be bailed out by the general fund with $7B – $8B per year for each of the past four years. The Federal Aviation Administration also received more than $5B per year from the general fund, between 25% – 30% of its annual budget.

    Parking is also a massive subsidy for automobiles that drivers rarely pay. Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason U., estimates this to be as much as $127B per year ( Drivers frequently don’t pay for parking. Many businesses offer customers free parking. The costs of construction, land, property taxes, and maintenance are all bundled into the costs of goods/services that all customers pay, regardless of how they access the store or business.

  11. mike
    Feb 28th, 2011 at 09:34

    Apparently the business plan didn’t pencil out on the California road network. Time to shut it down and return the money to the taxpayers.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Once again from the top:

    California Roads Are Massively Subsidized

    California Teachers Are Massively Subsidized

    BART Unions Are Massively Subsidized

    Palmdale Real Estate Developers Are Massively Subsidized

    Joe Reply:

    Conservative think tanks are massively subsidized.
    Tea batters are massively subsidized.

    It is a very long list.

  12. cfhanes
    Feb 28th, 2011 at 10:32

    This argument that the California road systems’ user revenues are only 39% or whatever ignores the fact that these figures do not include most vehicle costs and operating expenses, such as depreciation, maintenance, insurance, fuel (excluding taxes), and an imputed cost for the driver/operators. All of these costs of the highway system are directly paid for by the users, and should be added in on the user revenue side. There is no way to operate a highway system without vehicles.

    mike Reply:

    Fair enough, but in that case you need to add in (at least) two additional sources of massive subsidies:

    1) Land subsidies. In an area such as California, the land that the roads occupy – which they pay no rent on – is more valuable than the asphalt used to pave it.

    2) Labor subsidies. As you point out, there is no way to operate a highway system (or most transit systems) without vehicle operators. The labor for transit systems is taxed, but the “imputed” labor for the highway system is untaxed. Either all income/payroll taxes associated with transit employees need to be counted as a user fee for transit, or an amount equivalent to the hourly income/payroll tax for each car driver need to be counted as a subsidy for roads. You can’t have it both ways.

    Spokker Reply:

    The high cost of automobile ownership means that though everybody pays for highways, only those who are able or willing to take on those ownership costs are able to take advantage of those subsidies for driving.

    So in a place like where I live, Orange County, CA, if you have no vehicle you are still paying for free parking through higher prices for all goods. You are still experiencing the negative social costs (which are relatively high because your poor neighborhood is more likely to be closer to a freeway). The sales tax you pay still goes to roads and your own ride, the bus, is constantly threatened by those who feel the service should pay for itself. When the service to your job is cut you are either fired or forced to go into debt to purchase a vehicle.

    It’s sort of like being kicked while you are down.

    Joe Reply:

    Yes, we all pay for an unevenly used service, our roads.

    Consumer reports estimates cost of ownership per vehicle for a 15,000 mile year driving, 5 year ownership.

    The federal per deim is 0.50 per mile, The Honda fit costs 0.47 per mile to operate. Most vehicles cost far more.

    Also, damaged roads such as those in CA and TX, increase auto repairs beyond the CR average.

  13. Paulus Magnus
    Feb 28th, 2011 at 11:52

    It’s worth pointing out that, since 1956, the Federal government, through the highway trust fund, has spent more than eight hundred billion dollars on our highways. While seven hundred of those billions, and thus some 87%, do come from user fees, that’s still a staggering toll of investment, especially since Federal funds do not account for the entirety of spending (and I’m reasonably sure that these numbers are not adjusted for inflation). If the approximately 20% figure from subsidyscope has held steady over that period of time, then over the past fifty years, approximately four trillion dollars has been spent on roads.

    As an interesting aside, the per-capita gasoline consumption of some states is really out of whack. For all of our sprawl and car loving culture (in theory), we use less gasoline than an equitable distribution would presume. Texas, on the other hand, uses about 22% more gasoline per person than we do.

    Joseph E Reply:

    “87%, do come from user fees”. Not true. 87% came from gas tax, but much of that tax was paid on gas used on non-federal highways. When you drive on a city street or county road, you pay gas tax which goes to fund the interstates and federal highways.

    In California, only 32% of highways are eligible for federal funding, and I imagine that less than half of miles driven are on federal highways which are paid by gas tax. Really, that 87% should be more like 45%… and that’s only federally funded roads. Local roads are mainly paid by sales and property tax (with some amount of local gas tax funding).

    And in some states, gasoline is exempt from normal sales taxes, which means the “user fee” is really just a way to devote some sales tax funding to transportation, but it’s money that otherwise would be in the general fund. That’s not a user fee.

  14. Joseph E
    Feb 28th, 2011 at 13:17

    Robert, you still have the chart of ALABAMA up there. California’s numbers for the last 2 years are over 16 billion. Please fix!

  15. Joseph E
    Feb 28th, 2011 at 13:23

    How much would the gas tax need to be to pay for the $16 billion of road funding in California each year?

    Over $1.00 per gallon

    Californians use about 16 billion gallons per year… and spend over 16 billion on roads (see above):

    Currently, the state gas tax is only 28 cents.

    mike Reply:

    Actually the state gas tax is only 18 cents (with another 18 cents of Federal gas tax). But that’s still higher than many other states. Texas, for example, has a negative gas tax (i.e. they actively subsidize gasoline consumption through tax breaks).

    Winston Reply:

    Actually, the gas excise tax has gone up due to the “gas tax swap” in which the sales tax on gasoline was eliminated and replaced with an equivalent excise tax on gasoline ($0.353/gal). This was done because sales tax revenues are counted in some state funding formulas but excise taxes aren’t, thus allowing spending cuts that wouldn’t be possible without doing the swap.

    mike Reply:

    When you say it’s “gone up,” I’m not sure what you’re comparing it to.

    According to the American Petroleum Institute, Texas has a 20 cents/gallon fixed tax on gasoline. The sales tax in Houston (the Texas city I visit most often) is 8.25%. This means that at $3/gallon, the gas tax actually represents a tax break (i.e., subsidy) rather than a user fee – if there were no gas tax and it didn’t have the sales tax subsidy, the rate would be .0825*300 = 25 cents/gallon.

    Of course, at prices of $2/gallon or less, the gas tax would represent a modest user fee rather than a subsidy. But I think the days of $1-2/gallon gas are gone for good.

    Dan S. Reply:

    Speaking of charts, there’s a fabulous one over at the infrastructurist on this topic.

    However I don’t suggest using it as a tool to convert the asphalt-huggers out there. Those who believe in fundamental American exceptionalism are not moved by the idea that all other industrialized countries are doing something else. (See health care.)

  16. Elizabeth
    Feb 28th, 2011 at 16:21

    And then there was Japan?

    Also, does anyone know the specific clause that would mean US contractors for texas but whoever for California? I would have thought that Buy America was to blame and it would have affected all projects equally but apparently not?


    Peter Reply:

    I’d rather have Japan build the system than Korea. They have a much longer and better record of safe operations.

    MGimbel Reply:

    And they’re willing to pay for half of the system.

    Gianny Reply:

    I Support Japan to build the system.

    synonymouse Reply:

    me too, so long as they kick PB to the curb.

    wu ming Reply:

    and there’s that experience with quakes. and, of course, the bento carts.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    “They have a much longer and better record of safe operations.”
    This is a bit simplistic. You have to take into account the conditions of operation.
    For trains running on wholly dedicated tracks, Japan has the longest experience.
    For high-speed trains sharing tracks with suburban and freight trains, the reference is France (no casualty in 30 years).
    For high-speed trains safely derailing at full speed, or colliding with heavy trucks (up to 100 tons) with no injuries to passengers, it’s France again.

    Regarding earthquake safety: train or track contruction has little to do with it. The Shinkansen is safe because it is connected to a nationwide earthquake detection system with thousands of sensors both inland and under the sea. Wherever a quake starts, the central computer follows its path. If it’s moving towards a sensitive zone such as a Shinkansen track, the information is instantly transmitted to the drivers so that they can stop or slow the trains.
    For lack of a national system it could connect to, Taiwan HSR had its own system designed by European engineers. For budgetary reasons few remote sensors were installed and most of them are a short distance from the tracks. So, in theory, drivers have less time to stop their trains than in Japan.
    If California doesn’t have an existing centralized system CHSR can connect to, then it will have to more or less follow Taiwan’s example.
    Anyway, people should realize there is no such thing as a quake-proof train. The best you can do is stop it before it’s too late. The earlier the warning, the safer the train.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Regarding earthquake safety: train or track contruction has little to do with it. … Wherever a quake starts, the central computer follows its path. If it’s moving towards a sensitive zone such as a Shinkansen track, the information is instantly transmitted to the drivers so that they can stop or slow the trains.

    This doesn’t even pass the order of magnitude giggle test.
    What’s the deceleration rate at 280kmh again? What’s the reaction time of a human?

    Yes, there is a system very approximately like what you describe. But it can’t and doesn’t guarantee safety alone.

    Passive safety (structural resilience, lack of structures, derailment containment) has got to be a huge part of system safety, and not just against earthquakes.

    This jingoistic disparagement of good engineering by experienced engineers who’ve created an astonishingly reliable and safe and successful system is an embarrassment. Sometimes even non-European humans manage to have good ideas, you know.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    Don’t get carried away. I was not being jingoistic and not disparaging the Japanese whom I very much admire. I was only citing established facts. It might upset you that there has been no deadly collision in France in 30 years, but it’s a fact.
    The only train that has repeatedly proved it can collide with a very hard and heavy object with no injury to passengers is the TGV. I didn’t say no other train can do it, but it’s the only one that proved it.
    Derailment containment is OK but when it can’t be prevented (sabotage exists in less civilised countries like France), a train which derails safely is not to be scorned.
    I think your anti-european feelings are blinding you and make you read things I didn’t write. I’ll simplify for you:
    if CHSR is going to be run on totally dedicated tracks excluding any risk of collision with foreign objects, then lightweight Japanese trains are, by far, the best choice. Otherwise, they are not.

    Joey Reply:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that derailment containment refers to keeping the train on the guideway (approximately) in the event of a derailment, not preventing one altogether. The Japanese seem to have worked on this problem considerably. So even if a train derails on a high structure, it will stay on that structure, and probably not obstruct the other track either.

    orulz Reply:

    For the quality of the product and reliability of the system, an off-the-shelf Shinkansen would absolutely beat all. However, the FRA says that an off-the-shelf system will not fly in CA. That raises the question of whether adapting the Shinkansen to the US regulatory environment would somehow make it an inferior product.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Everything involving adapting something to FRA standards makes it an inferior product. The question is, whether it’ll be more inferior than an FRA-approved Velaro. My money is on no.

    Winston Reply:

    It isn’t at all clear what the FRA regulations for HSR on dedicated tracks will be. That is something that is going to have be cleared up very soon if the California project is to avoid the fate of the Acela.

    Joey Reply:

    It isn’t at all clear what the FRA regulations for HSR on dedicated tracks will be.

    No, but they can be assumed to somewhat more that UIC regulations and much more than shinkansen (read: more than necessary).

    Winston Reply:

    I don’t really know. It appears that Caltrain is getting away with UIC equipment mixed with FRA equipment and the sprinter in San Diego also operates under a waiver. IF the Obama administration wants HSR to succeed in California, then they could do much worse than allowing Japanese equipment.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    They probably can. I’m sure the windows in Japanese trains are made out of something bit more durable than ordinary window glass.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    The FRA is already bugging JR East about whether its trains can withstand the impact of a 6k steel ball. (Appropriate answer: “in the last ten years, our fatality rate per passenger-km was lower than yours by a factor of 40.”)

    Wad Reply:

    What about the chicken gun? :>

    thatbruce Reply:

    Mythbusters did that, or you can watch some more formal testing.

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