Ed Orcutt is the ranking minority member on the Transportation Committee in the Washington House of Representatives. In an email to a constituent, Orcutt riffed on the transportation tax bill introduced last week. It started off easily enough:
“I am not a fan of much in the House Transportation tax proposal nor of many tax proposals . . .”
(of course not – Orcutt is an erstwhile Republican and fan of the Tea Party)
But just like the Tea Party can find a soft spot in its heart for government action when it comes to Social Security, Medicare or enforcing drug laws, Orcutt has found a tax that he actually likes:
“. . . but I have to admit I think there are valid reasons to tax bicycles.”
Really? Like what?
Well, it may be the case that Orcutt is a closet economist, because he seems awfully concerned about externalities – you know, the costs that certain activities impose on the rest of society that aren’t paid by the person or industry creating the cost. Orcutt, with professorial patience, continues:
“Think about this for a moment. Currently motorists are paying to use their cars on the roads while they are actually driving their cars. At the same time, they are paying for bike lanes because there is no gas tax – or any transportation tax – generated by the act of riding a bike on the roadways.”
That’s an admirable concern for the “free rider” problem right there. I assume Orcutt feels the same way about the firearms dealers and timber industry in his district paying the full freight for the costs they impose, although I’ve yet to see his incisive macroeconomic analysis on that topic.
But never mind that – on to the bikes! Yes, it must be a dreadful thing, all us freeloading cyclists. Orcutt is right, of course – we don’t pay a tax based on usage. Compared to cars, we ARE freeriders, creating externalities that are paid for by society. There’s no debate about that. Although 96% of Seattle’s roadway budget comes from non-usage based funds (principally property, sales and B&O tax revenue), fully 4% comes from gas tax. FOUR PERCENT!
The burden of which – and I can’t be plainer about this – is borne solely on the shoulders of drivers.
Rep. Ed Orcutt is obviously a principled economist, focused on the question of fairness. I’m sure he would advocate that cyclists pay for roadway commensurate with usage and impact in relation to cars and trucks.
So let’s do some quick math.
- In Seattle, gas tax revenues used for roads equals about $13.5 million annually.
- Bikes are used for about 5% of commutes. There’s obviously recreational riding as well, but let’s assume that’s washed out by non-commute driving.
- 5% of $13.5 million is a little shy of $700,000.
- But we haven’t accounted for commercial driving, which places a massively disproportionate burden on transportation infrastructure given the weight of the vehicles and the miles driven. Let’s say that cuts the share attributable to bikes down to $350,000.
- Oh, and we haven’t accounted for the difference in commute length. The average one-way commute for drivers in Seattle is 14.1 miles; for cyclists it’s 6.1 miles. So that brings the “cycle share” down to about $150,000.
- Then’s there’s vehicular weight and rolling resistance on pavement – the biggest driver of transportation infrastructure wear and tear. Let’s say the average motor vehicle weighs 4000 pounds, and the average bike-and-rider 200. That’s probably understated, since it doesn’t account for commercial vehicles or the differences in tire size, but let’s go with it because it makes for a nice, clean 5% ratio. That brings the number down to $7,500.
So those of us commuting by bike in Seattle are free riding to the tune of, at most, $7,500 per year. I’m guessing a more detailed analysis or factoring in the positive externalities of cycling would reduce that number further or even turn it negative.
As Orcutt is a devotee not only of fairness but also of small government, I’m certain he would not want to create or expand state bureaucracy to collect so piddling a tax, a tax whose meager revenues would be swamped by the cost of collection and enforcement.
But perhaps not. Because Orcutt may have a bigger agenda. You see, he is not only an economist, but also an environmentalist, concerned about the dire impact of bicycling on global warming. He may like this tax because it uses the “pull” of state taxation to drive an end desirable to Orcutt – getting all of those spandex-clad polluters off their bikes and back behind the wheel where they won’t do so much damage to Mother Earth:
“But if I am not mistaken, a cyclist has an increased heart rate and respiration. That means that the act of riding a bike results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider. Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride.”
(h/t Seattle Bike Blog)