Houston’s Highway 99. Photo by Texas Hillsurfer on Flickr.

Transit opponents like to claim that our gas taxes fully pay for roads, while transit requires ongoing subsidies. Therefore, free-market economics would conclude that we should only build roads.

There’s just one problem: gas taxes don’t pay for roads at all. Take the Texas DOT’s word for it: “There is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today. Some roads pay for about half their true cost, but most roads we have analyzed pay for considerably less.”

According to TxDOT, the proposed 15-mile SH-99 in Houston will recover only 16% of its costs in gas taxes. Almost all US transit systems have a higher farebox recovery ratio; WMATA’s is 61.6%, which means we are subsidizing every single road in Texas more than Washington’s buses and trains (same for the NYC subway, the Bay Area’s BART and Caltrain, Philadelphia’s SEPTA and PATCO, and New Jersey Transit, the other systems that Wikipedia lists as having farebox recovery greater than 50%). Farebox recovery ratios don’t account for capital costs, so it’s not a fair comparison. Still, whether we build roads or rails, the public is subsidizing it. There’s no transportation system that directly pays for itself. Our task as citizens is to decide which kind of transportation investments create the kind of development growth and economic activity we want.

Thanks to Jeff of Reconnecting America for the tip.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.