Cars and fiscal responsibility: diametrically opposed?

Several friends recently shared with me an article from the Guardian called “For the price of a mile of highway, you too can have a bike-friendly city.”

It’s an excellent read that makes the point promised in the title:

Then there’s the cost of roads – building and maintaining them. Our gas taxes cover this, is the myth. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been true since 1956, when President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act, consigning us to generations of escalating civic and private debt. (This report is a great primer on the topic.) Nowadays, about half the cost of the country’s road system is paid for through gas taxes; the rest comes out of the general fund. The other half is paid for through taxes – sales, income, property, special levies – which means that we all pay for roads,whether or not we actually drive on them.

That’s an important point on it’s own, though the article also mentions that cars are a major economic drain on us individually too. The article then goes on to point out that bikes are a bargain by comparison.

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Which raises several questions: can a car-centric society ever by fiscally responsible? Can a society that spends so much money on the most expensive transportation option reasonable call itself “conservative”?

Living in a conservative state these are questions I often ponder. Politically, Utah is considered one of the most conservative places in America. But while we have some bike infrastructure and decent public transit, our cities along the Wasatch Front are unequivocally oriented for car usage.

Which means we’re constantly investing huge amounts of money on the most expensive possible transportation solutions. This might technically be a “liberal” approach, though I think most liberals would (rightly) balk at having something so grossly inefficient as car-oriented infrastructure attached to their turf on the political spectrum.

In any case, this is not a political blog. What I actually get out of that Guardian article is that we should be zeroing in on efficiency. We should focus on the best, most fiscally responsible solutions — irrespective of their traditional political labels. After all, as Utah’s big-spending-for-cars philosophy shows, political labels are sometimes completely inaccurate.

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3 comments

  1. walkableprinceton

    I presume you’re already a regular reader of Chuck Marohn’s ‘Strong Towns’ blog. He also does a podcast, which is great. Chuck is a libertarian-minded conservative, but he sees car-dependent, suburban-style development as a Ponzi scheme which will inevitably dump a ton of debt service onto the next generation. I think he’s right. Here’s my take on Governor/future-President Chris Christie’s transportation policy: http://walkableprinceton.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/sub-3buck-gas-told-you-so/

    • jimmycdii

      I’ve only driven it once or twice personally, but I can’t say I’m a fan. I know some people out there love it, and I have to be careful because I have nothing against those people as human beings. But that said, it seems like a massive handout to people wanting to develop that area that we’re all funding but only a few people are benefiting from. It clearly discourages density, and at this point is barely even serving anyone.

      It’s funny because these projects seem to be spurred by anticipated demand. They go in and, low and behold, the demand materializes. But it’s in large part induced demand, imo; if we didn’t build it in the first place, that demand would have gone elsewhere.

      Ultimately, I’m not against this project, but I think if it’s going to happen the people in the community (ie those who will use it) should shoulder the real costs.

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