October 17th, 2011

Why in government reporting, bike paths seem to cost more than freeways.

I would love some advice from an economist here. When I looked at these pie charts, I expected expenditure on roads would account for a huge slice of government spending. An alien looking down from above, or an archaeologist sifting through our remains, would see no greater testament to government spending, than roads.

But the actual dollar cost of all this road building, is reported on a so-called accrual basis. What's that mean? As far as I can gather, it means reporting net losses, instead of gross costs. The cost of roads, we are to believe, is offset by increased revenue from fuel tax, when new roads increase peoples' driving. So on paper, roads cost very little, despite their enormity, and cost to the planet, and people's health. On paper, a bike path would cost as much per kilometer as a new stretch of freeway, because cyclists aren't paying fuel tax. On paper, spending on cyclists looks like spending on welfare, that we're meant to believe is a bottomless hole, with no returns. Likewise, education, something we spend on and get nothing back from. Roads though: they're built for profit. A really smart government, according to this cockeyed logic we live by, would spread cities out even more, anything to necessitate more roads, and greater reliance on cars, and therefore more money from fuel tax. 

Looking at this summary, all the green/sustainable infrastructure projects are surprisingly expensive, while the federally funded roads look surprisingly cheap. I mean, mountains are moved to build roads. Light rail is tiny. Hopefully a carbon tax will do something to redress these absurdities.