Do Roads Pay for Themselves?

"The Great Myth begins, as so many myths do, with an arduous journey - in this case, then-Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower's 62-day cross-country trip with a military convoy along our nation's rutted roads during the summer of 1919. Conditions like those faced by Eisenhower were all too familiar to the small but growing number of drivers, who clamoured for public investment in better roads. But how to pay for them? In the same year that Eisenhower made his journey, the state of Oregon hit upon an innovative method for raising money for the expensive task of improving the state's roads - a tax on gasoline, the revenues of which were exclusively dedicated to highway improvements.

"As the years went on and the automobile became increasingly popular, more states followed Oregon's lead. And in 1956, under the leadership of President Eisenhower, the federal government directed the revenues from the federal gasoline tax to raise money for the largest public works project in human history: the Interstate Highway System. In these good old times, the Interstate Highway System brought extraordinary prosperity, mobility and freedom to the land. Moreover, according to the Great Myth, it was paid for by those who used it - without meaningful subsidies from general taxpayers. The highways paid for themselves! And those who chose not to drive were supposedly none the worse off.

According to the Great Myth, drivers not only endured but actually embraced the gas tax since they
knew they were paying for better roads.

"But like all myths, the Great Myth of Highway Finance relies as much on fiction as fact. ... That's
because even during the so-called good old days gasoline taxes weren't always used exclusively for
roads, they have almost always failed to fully pay the cost of highways, and non-drivers have always
borne additional costs from highways in the form of disrupted neighbourhoods, accidents, and a polluted environment. Correcting these myths might seem to be merely an historical exercise and in an ideal world, it would be. But the Great Myth carries with it a set of false presumptions [that] distort
transportation decision-making.

"In a sensible world, America would invest in transportation projects that deliver the greatest benefits to the population, and pay for those investments in ways that allocate the costs fairly across society -
taking into account the many ways that transportation investments can benefit or harm individuals and
businesses. In the world of the Great Myth, however, each transportation mode is presumed to survive
only on the money its users can provide - and all of the money its users provide should go to that
transportation mode, regardless of where the greatest benefits can be achieved."

Ref: Introduction, Do Roads Pay for Themselves, US PIRG, 4/1/11
See report at: http://cdn.publicinterestnetwork.