Conrad deFibre's story about the troubles Westbrook, MN, faces in maintaining its streets illustrates a point I've made before.
Motor vehicle users don't pay for the full cost of the streets they use most.
[Cities throughout Minnesota] maintain nearly 45,000 lane-miles of streets, on which vehicles travel 8.9 billion miles a year. But little of the money needed for the job comes from motorists' user fees such as fuel and registration taxes. Instead, regressive property taxes and special assessments pay the lion's share.
The car culture often points to light rail lines and bike lanes as not being self-funding, but:
The latest numbers indicate that user fees will pay barely two-fifths of the $4.7 billion in projected construction needs until 2030 for the busiest streets in Minnesota's biggest 144 cities. And that's only if apportionments don't continue to decline.
Cutting state aid for roads is just another facet of the present trend of balancing state budgets by shifting more costs to cities. Maintenance and construction get deferred when cities face shortfalls, pushing those costs into the future — when repairs will be even more costly.
And while small government advocates like to claim city operations are full of waste, looking at the budget through the windshield can be instructive. Our cars cost us a lot. And street repairs, like education costs, may be another can we kick down the road in our denial.
In my suburb of Golden Valley, street maintenance is the fourth largest operating cost category, just slightly behind administrative services and fire and inspections. (Police is by far the largest category, at $4.56 million versus $1.37 million.)
But street maintenance is only one auto-related operating cost. Police devote a lot of resources to traffic and accidents; engineering (general engineering plus traffic signals, street lights, concrete repair) and public works (responsible for the city's infrastructure).
Then there are the capital costs. In Golden Valley, the city's pavement management program to improve city streets is budgeted to be much larger than the police budget through 2014.
Like it or not folks, our car dependence has a lot to do with our tax bill, whether we pay it now or pass it on to our kids.