We hear it all the time: “Bikes don’t pay their way.” To the point, Tom Held, of the Journal Sentinel’s Off the Couch, shared this email he recently received:
“I’m 75 and when I was a kid I had a J.C. Higgins bike that cost less than $35.00, although I wanted a Schwinn. We didn’t have gears back then but a couple of rich kids had three speed Sturmey Archer shifts. Every year I went to the city hall and paid fifty cents for my license plate. Woe to the rider who didn’t display one. Now, adult bicycle geeks don’t pay a dime but want all sorts of expensive concessions to their “sport”.
Years ago, an adult male on a bike was looked upon as odd. Come to think of it, men today in special shoes, silly peaked hats or little helmets and Tour de France shirts look a little odd, too.
We rode on city streets with streetcar tracks and heeded traffic controls, riding in the prescribed single file with our handlebars adorned with as many headlights as we could afford, hopefully with a generator at the tire. The rear we had at least a dozen reflectors and some guys had a couple of taillights. I see many bikes today with no lights at all. We traveled on county roads, paved and gravel and never dreamed of having special lanes created for us.
If today’s bikers want special accommodations for their thousand dollar bikes, let them be required to buy annual licenses for, say, $25.00 for adults and $5.00 for kids under fifteen and use the funds to pay for them.”
If we ignore the current lack of street cars, the fact that the vast majority of bikes still have platform pedals for regular shoes and that today’s much brighter LED bikes lights sell quite well, the Bike Fed has proven many times in the past that people who ride bikes in fact do contribute to the cost of building trails and maintaining the roads. At the most basic level, according to the WDNR, the state trail passes fund a bit less than 50% of the cost of our state trails, and hikers don’t have to pay. So while bikes do come up short, guess what, so do cars. According to the Federal Highway Administration graph below, gas taxes now only fund about 5o% of our federal interstates and highways, not too much better than bikes.
Norman Rockwell memories of the past aside, the truth of the matter is things have changed since the 50s when user fees paid 70% of the cost of our transportation system. Today we don’t have enough money to repair our existing trails, bridges, highways or local roads, yet we continue to build more without repairing what we have. People who ride bikes don’t pay enough now and neither do people who drive cars. Our transportation funding system is broken. On that score there is little debate.
Everyone agrees, the road building lobby, environmental lobby groups like 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, WisDOT, Governor Walker and the state legislature all understand the transportation system needs an overhaul and a massive influx of additional money if we are going to fix what we have, and plan for future growth.
That is precisely why they created the Transportation Finance and Policy Commission in the 2011-13 biennial state budget to look at the issue of financing Wisconsin’s future transportation needs. The public will get a chance to sound off at the commission’s first public listening session on Thursday at Sequoya Branch Library, 4340 Tokay Blvd. in Madison, beginning at 5 p.m. During the day, the commission will be taking testimony from invited guests, including John Burke, president of Trek Bicycles.
The Bike Fed will also be there, and we want to know how you feel about the issue.
Wisconsin has about 114,000 miles of public roads throughout the state. About 100,000 miles of those are local roads, funded primarily by property taxes, and local fees – not the gas tax. That means you pay for them whether you own a car or not. Wisconsin property taxes provide massive subsidies to road users – some $1.74 billion a year. The graph below shows how WisDOT funds Wisconsin’s 750 miles of interstate freeways and 11,010 miles of state and US-marked highways.
“We hope interested citizens will use the listening session to provide the commission with input on Wisconsin’s transportation future, especially as it pertains to prioritizing and funding our long-range needs,” said Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb in a news release announcing the listening sessions. Gottlieb serves as the commission chairman. Other commission members include Tripp Ahern, Fond du Lac; Tom Carlsen, Verona; Barbara Fleisner, Wausau; Robb Kahl, Madison; Craig Thompson, Madison; and Tom Vandenberg, Green Bay; Robert Cook, Madison; Dave Cieslewicz, Madison; Martin Hanson, Eau Claire, and John Antaramian, Kenosha.
Those unable to attend the Thursday listening session can send comments about the state’s transportation needs to the commission by email to email@example.com.
The commission has it’s work cut out for it to even fund highway projects. Beginning in 2013, our state transportation budget will dip into Wisconsin’s general fund to try to shrink the gap between the cost of our roads and the money generated by the gas tax and registration. But since the general fund is short on money to cover things like education, health care, tourism, etc., that well cannot be dipped in too many times.
It would be a great start if we could assign the real cost of each mode to the users. But since local property taxes, fees and income taxes subsidize the majority of our roads in the state, it will be difficult to get people who drive motor vehicles to pay their full share. Bikes on the other hand are pretty cheap. It would be pretty simple to pay the entirety of the cost of trails by simply doubling the trail pass fee. Most people I know who ride bikes would pay more if they knew the money was going to a segregated fund just for trails.
That money isn’t enough to pay for bike lanes, protected bike lanes or bicycle boulevards, but until cyclists no longer have to subsidize the roads with our property taxes, income taxes and fees, perhaps it would be enough if we just paid for our trails, as do the people who ride snowmobiles and ATVs. Through bi-annual mandatory registration and formal gas tax set-asides, people who ride recreational motor vehicles actually do pay the full cost of building and maintaining their trails, and they are even proposing legislation to increase their registration fees.
Cleaning up the subsidy-filled morass that is the current transportation funding system for our roads will not be an easy task, especially given the current T(axed) E(nough) A(lready) “but I want more” political climate. That said, it would be relatively easy to increase trail pass fees, ask hikers to pay for them as well, and require trail passes for urban trails so non-motorized trail users would shoulder the full cost of our trails.
I know, despite common misconceptions, motorists are getting subsidized. For our property taxes, snow removal fees, storm water runoff fees, and the cost of wars in oil producing countries, cyclists are getting more on-road accommodations than we used to, but given the limited, still disconnected networks of bike accommodations, cyclists probably pay more than our share for roads.
That said, the fact remains that the transportation funding system needs more money, if we are to nothing more than maintain what we have; so would you pay more for trail passes? Despite Rockwell memories of fifty-cent license plates, mandatory registration has never proven a good source of revenue in the past, but we might be able to make it work today with modern technology, if it had the potential to raise millions of dollars like the proposed $34 registration fee for our state’s 200,000 snowmobiles.
Would you pay more, as the snowmobilers are willing to do, if that money went into a fund just to maintain and build trails? Let us have your comments below.