Cost of driving down, but tolls, taxes erase any gains for taxpayers

Cost of car ownership down, but tolls, taxes continue to rise
By Terri Hall
January 31, 2018

Americans should be celebrating the lower cost of driving between 2016 and 2017, but the tolls and taxes being imposed by government threaten to erase any gains motorists might have enjoyed. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Transportation Economic Trends of 2017, the number of miles traveled by Americans went up 7.9% since 2014 (17.3% since 2000) with a slight 2.2% drop in the overall cost of private transportation (including a .5% drop in the cost of buying a new or used vehicle and an 11.5% decrease in fuel costs). However, taxes on vehicles increased 2.1%, parking fees and tolls (imposed by government) rose 2.8%, and car maintenance and repair went up 1.7%. With car insurance spiking 6.2% and housing costs soaring 6%, these cost increases effectively erase any cost savings motorists experienced.

Several developments compound the frustration of motorists who can’t seem to cut a break. Many cities across America tilt left, politically, and they’ve declared war on cars and use gasoline taxes collected from motorists in order to erect impediments to driving through a variety of traffic calming and social engineering gimmicks.

For instance in San Antonio, the city just broke ground on a 3-mile, $7.2 million bike lane and sidewalk expansion, which includes a 10 foot, two-way buffered bike lane, wider sidewalks and a 5-foot brick buffer (that looks like its own walking path) to protect bicyclists and pedestrians from autos. This is valuable space that could be used to expand the roadway for auto capacity that’s getting squandered on buffered bike lanes and walkways that less than 1% of travelers use to get around. At over $4 million a mile, it’s no wonder motorists and taxpayers cry foul that their tax dollars are being wasted on non-road uses while they’re forced to pay punitively high tolls to get any congestion relief.

With a 10-mile trip along I-66 in Virginia costing commuters $44 in tolls to take during peak hours, tolls are rapidly becoming the preferred form of tax increase for public officials. Politicians get to pass the buck on taking a hard vote to raise taxes (such as the gasoline tax), and instead get to outsource it to unelected bureaucrats who then blame it on a complicated algorithm that adjusts the toll in real time based on the level of congestion on the highway. Keeping the pain of taxation outside the reach of voters, politicians and an ever growing government bureaucracy use it to abuse taxpayers and manipulate travel liberty.

Americans spend $1.2 trillion a year on transportation, ranking it the 4th highest expenditure per household behind housing, healthcare, and food. The cost to purchase, operate, and maintain personal vehicles account for 91% of that figure, totaling $1.09 trillion of personal transportation costs. The Consumer Expenditure Survey measures individual household spending on transportation, which averaged $8,755 in 2016 making it the second largest household expense behind housing.

With tolls reaching $5,000 per year for many households facing $400-$500 per month in tolls due to the high cost of congestion tolling (like the I-66 toll managed lanes in Virginia and I-635 in Dallas), toll taxes could nearly double household transportation expenses and threaten the very existence of working families who lack such discretionary spending. The options cannot remain pay tolls or stay stuck in congestion or be forced to use less efficient modes of travel like buses or rail. A trip taken by automobile can double or even triple in travel time when taking the same trip via bus or commuter rail. These are not options that will increase productivity and quality of life.

While the Transportation Economic Trends of 2017 brings some good news about the reduced cost of driving when looking at certain measures, the overall trend, especially in urban areas, shows costs spiraling out of control due to toll taxes, which do not keep pace with income. It doesn’t do much good to have tax relief on the federal level if state and local taxes take those dollars right back out of a family’s pocket. Americans need a net tax decrease so that households see an actual increase in personal income and prosperity. Attacking our personal freedom to travel with runaway toll taxation isn’t going to do the trick.