November 3, 2010

Contra Costa's Measure O Fails

Measure O, a proposal to increase vehicle registration fees by $10 to fund transportation improvements in Contra Costa County, has failed by a margin of 53 - 43%.

Now, no one likes to volunteer to pay more money. But Measure O's failure is disappointing because it represented a chance for greater fiscal conservatism: in the spirit of toll lanes, gas taxes, and the benefits-received principle of taxation, it asked the primary users of our roads to contribute more, and more directly, to maintenance and operating costs.

Most of the opposition to the measure repeated two arguments: the national Republican meme of "it's time for government to live within its means" and the (certainly true) accusation that the measure would fund bus, bike, and pedestrian improvements alongside the road improvements.

And yet, both arguments fail to convince. Let's start with the first one.

Todd Litman, blogging at Planetizen, (via Streetsblog), provides some context, using data from national sources:

According to the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey, in 2008 U.S. motorists spent on average approximately $2,700 per vehicle on ownership expenses (purchase, registration, insurance, etc.) and $1,400 on fuel and oil, about $4,100 in total. That year, governments spent $181 billion to build and maintain roadways (more if you include traffic services such as policing and emergency response), or about $730 annually per registered motor vehicle. Less than half of these roadway expenses are paid by motor vehicle user fees, the rest are borne through general taxes. ... A typical urban parking space costs $5,000 to $25,000 to construct, resulting in $500 to $1,500 in annualized construction and operating costs.
The conclusion here is that, on average, motorist-funded monies like the gas tax and vehicle registration fees only cover a portion of the actual costs of expanding, operating, and maintaining the infrastructure necessary for automobile use in the United States. In this light, Measure O would appear to be an excellent way to fulfill exactly what its detractors are saying: live within your means.

And with regard to using a vehicle tax to fund multi-modal transportation, Measure O's detractors had this to say in their official voter information document:

The 21% [of Contra Costa Transportation Authority's spending plan] allocated to "Transit for Congestion Relief" also funds "rapid bus facilities" and "express and feeder bus service."
Another 8% of Measure O's spending exclusively funds "Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety and Access."

How this became part of the anti-O argument is hard to figure. Road advocates are too often locked into a mentality that sees more roads as the only route to congestion relief. Yet increasing road capacity only provides a greater incentive to drive--a phenomena known as induced demand that has been well documented by prominent sources. More roads encourage more driving.

On the contrary, improving bus, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure is likely to reduce traffic by providing people with other ways of traveling. The issue at hand is incentives, and allocating them to boost and reduce demand as needed in order to ensure an evenly used and fluid transportation network. One local success in this area is Bay Bridge congestion pricing, where tolls are raised during rush hour to encourage discretionary travelers to drive during less trafficked times of day. The incentive has largely worked: the time to reach the toll plaza has halved, and despite a drop in carpoolers, BART ridership has increased. (For a list of Transportation Demand Management strategies, check out the TDM Encyclopedia at the Victoria Policy Institute.)

Opponents of Measure O who are looking for better and less congested roads just missed a chance at having just that. While it may seem counterintuitive, asking drivers to pay for services received, and using portions of that revenue to boost the growth of buses and bike lanes will actually benefit drivers, and everybody in the network.

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