When Los Angeles passed Measure R in 2008, most news headlines touted the fact that a notoriously car-centric city had basically agreed to tax itself to build a better public transportation system. Buried in those stories is the fact that Measure R also pays for highway projects!

The fact that roads take money from taxpayers — both the ones who drive and those who don’t — is a story that often gets buried. Luckily, a new study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group helps bring the fact to light with a new report: “Do Roads Pay For Themselves?

The answer, as you may have guessed, is no. In fact, according to the report, highways today cost taxpayers — including non-drivers — a pretty penny: “Currently, highway “user fees” pay only about half the cost of building and maintaining the nation’s network of highways, roads and streets.”

No, gas taxes don’t cover the cost of building and maintaining all our roads. In reporting on the study, DC Streetsblog points out that the federal gas tax hasn’t gone up since 1993. “Gas taxes haven’t risen to accommodate more fuel efficient cars or even for plain old inflation. Nor have they compensated for the fact that driving is declining, meaning less gas consumption (but, puzzlingly, not less road-building).”

And of course, the cost of the roads themselves don’t reflect the true cost of having those roads — from lost public spaces to suburban sprawl to car congestion to air pollution to environmental degradation. You can get more details on those ills by reading the full U.S. PIRG report.

So if anyone tries to tell you that roads pay for themselves, simply direct them to “Do Roads Pay for Themselves?” And if an elected official tries to sell you the “roads pay for themselves” line, educate them — and rethink your vote if he or she doesn’t seem to grasp what the numbers mean.

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