My story last week about a delay in the $14 million bike-pedestrian bridge over Barton Creek produced what, after more than 12 years covering transportation, has become a familiar complaint from readers.
Why is the city of Austin spending so much money on bike stuff — not just this notably expensive bridge, but all those bike lanes and trails that have been showing up around town over the past decade — when cyclists pay no gas taxes or registration fees? And to that point, some readers suggest, the city or the state ought to force registration of bicycles just like cars, and charge a fee.
Here’s the deal: Bicyclists, the overwhelming majority of them, do in fact pay taxes and fees into our transportation system on the city, county, state and federal levels. And registration of bikes, when it has been tried around the country, has proven to be both a cost loser and unpopular, especially given that bikes cause little or no damage to roads.
But to the “they pay nothing” argument first.
Although many utility customers may be unaware of this, the city has included a “transportation user fee” in monthly utility bills since the early 1990s. The fee has steadily increased and is now way above negligible. Owners of single-family homes pay $9.77 a month — about $117 a year — and then the rate ebbs for other forms of housing, down to $6.46 a month for a mobile home.
Commercial customers, meanwhile, pay $48.88 per developed acre each month.
This fee is expected to generate about $41 million for Austin this fiscal year, and all of it goes into street maintenance or to city transportation department costs. The people paying that on their utility bill are helping pay for Austin roads.
To be meticulous about this, I should note that not every adult Austinite pays this fee. The city code provides an exception for utility customers (only those in Austin city limits) who do not “own or regularly use a private motor vehicle for transportation” and those who are at least 65 years old. But the catch is, you have to apply for this exemption.
Austin Energy, which oversees the utility bill operation, told me that as of November, 19,847 customers had the exemption, about 5.7 percent of all residential accounts within the city.
Beyond that, I suppose there are some cyclists who are not utility customers. That is to say, homeless or crashing on someone’s couch for a while. But surely that is a very small number.
Then there are gas taxes and the annual $65 car registration fee. This is the heart of the complaints I normally get. You ride a bike, you’re not using gasoline or diesel or paying that registration fee. So you pay nothing for Austin streets.
First of all, the 38.4-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax in Texas and registration fee revenue do not go to the city of Austin. Instead, 20 cents of the gas tax and virtually all of the registration fee go to the Texas Department of Transportation. The remaining 18.4 cents of the gas tax goes to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Almost all of that money then goes into expansions or maintenance of the state highway system, not city of Austin streets.
Yes, that highway system includes some roads in Austin — Interstate 35, MoPac Boulevard, U.S. 183, U.S. 290 — but none of the gas tax helps the city with Burnet Road or Chicon Street or neighborhood streets. And raise your hand if you’ve passed a bike on U.S. 183 lately.
But beyond that, a large percentage of the cyclists you see (particularly the evening and weekend warriors biking for exercise) almost surely own a car as well, and thus pay gas taxes and car registration fees.
They also pay sales taxes, for the bike when they buy it (unless it’s an off-the-books used bike transaction) and for most other consumer goods. And 6.25 cents per dollar of that sales tax goes to the state, which over the past few years has used a small piece of it to pay off TxDOT bonds — which means for roads. And with the passage of Proposition 7 in November, even more state sales taxes will be going to TxDOT starting in 2017.
Locally, Capital Metro has a 1 percent sales tax. That Capital Metro money helped pay for about 32 million transit trips last year, many of which meant one less car on the street that day. So the cyclists pay for transportation that way as well.
And then there are property taxes. The city of Austin and Travis County pay for most of their larger transportation projects by asking voters to approve bonds. Meaning, borrowing that is then paid back by increasing the property tax rate.
So property owners in the city pay for transportation that way, and some portion of what renters pay helps the landlord pay property taxes as well.
Now, about requiring bicyclists to register their bike or, as some have suggested, apply for and pay for a cycling license. This has been bandied about in many places around the country but has failed to catch on. Many local laws requiring bike registration have been rescinded after officials discovered that administering such a program not only angers the cycling public (including those weekend warriors) but can cost more than it brings in.
As for licensing bike riders, how would that work? Would you mandate that 6-year-olds with training wheels (and a limited grasp of written English) pass an exam and pay a fee? What about 12-year-olds? And if they are allowed to bike unlicensed, would it make sense to require that of a skilled 30-year-old cyclist but not the wobbly and befuddled child passing by on the other side of the street?
Yes, one can legitimately question whether it is worth $14 million to build a complex of bridges and trails where South MoPac crosses the Barton Creek greenbelt. Very few people will choose to commute 5 miles or more to downtown Austin using that bridge (although there are work locations close by, such as Barton Creek Square and office buildings along South MoPac). On the other hand, a lot of cyclists might use it to get to and from Loop 360, a popular weekend biking route.
We can argue, legitimately, about the cost and the benefit of that, and other bike-ped projects.
But don’t say that cyclists don’t help pay for transportation. In almost all cases, they do.