California Roads Are Massively Subsidized
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:
User fees: 38%
Non-user revenues: 7%
User revenues: 1%
Non-user revenues: 31%
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: