Click to view larger. Graphic from CBO.

Our friends at City Observatory recently shared this article about the true cost of roads. In it, Joe Cortright discusses the findings in a recent Congressional Budget Office report that, while careful to tiptoe around the truth, nonetheless confirms what most Strong Towns readers already know: We cannot sustain our road spending and the return on our investment is minimal.

Joe writes:

Though couched in the careful technocratic language of the budget analyst—[in the report] you’ll read about how alternative financial arrangements would enable better “performance” and create greater “efficiency”—the translation is straightforward: the big cause of our transportation problems is that we’re charging road users the wrong price. [...] Collectively, road users are paying too little for what they use, which is why taxpayers have had to chip in more than $140 billion over the past seven years to make up shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund.

$140 billion in taxpayer money to support infrastructure that only a fraction of the population can use, and which causes the deaths of thousands of people every year? 

As if that weren't bad enough, Joe also points out that the report shows (again, something most of us probably already knew) that the return on road investment is limited.  We are channelling hundreds of billions into maintaining and expanding a system that does little for (and more often harm to) economic growth, and yet that's the number one reason the politicians and road lobbyists use to try and convince us that we need road funding.

As is the case with parking, the price of driving must be adjusted to reflect true costs, or we taxpayers will continue to subsidize unsustainable infrastructure. Joe writes:

The fact that many road users face prices that are far lower than the costs they impose on the system means that highways are over-used, and that there isn’t enough money to maintain or improve them. Getting prices right would lead to less peak demand (shifting travel to un-congested periods, when it can be accommodated with the existing infrastructure) and thus improving service for users who value travel time improvements.

This why we at Strong Towns advocate for #NoNewRoads until our leaders can come up with a better system for funding them. You can learn more about our campaign here.

(Top photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)


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