Cyclists paying our way, Walker style

I’ve got an idea I think Governor Walker will like.  I’m gonna give you the same pitch I will make to the Governor to get your feedback. If you readers think it is a good idea too, I will call the him and run my spiel.  (I heard about a secret code name bloggers can use if they want to talk to him). So let me know if you think it is a good suggestion. Ready?  Here’s the wind-up:

OK, let’s pretend I’ve got the Governor on the phone. After a few pleasantries I ask him to restore state funding for bike and ped projects, and he says,”We’re broke Dave, and as nice as they are, we just can’t afford the extras like bicycle projects until we fix our existing roads.”  I respond that we must fund bicycle and pedestrian projects too, after all, they make up 14% of all trips and he adds “What if I ask bicyclists to pay their share?  Motorists pay taxes at the pump and they pay registration fees for their vehicles, which earns them a place on the road.  What if I add a registration fee for  bicycles?”

It never takes long for anti-tax folks to suggest additional taxes and fees on people who ride bicycles or on bicycle sales.  Funny how quickly anti-tax arguments are forgotten when it comes to taxing healthy activities like bicycling.  Because I am so sick of listening to this argument and I believe in shared sacrifice, I am almost willing to pay extra out of my pocket.  I might be willing to pay an annual bicycle registration fee if all that money would go to bicycle projects like a bike path over the Hoan.  But even if other cyclists felt the same as I and were willing to pay more, we can’t go down that road so I don’t suggest it.

Instead I argue, “Mr. Governor, new taxes are a non-starter. First such a tax or fee would have a negative effect on local bike shops, which are small businesses. It would make them less competative with internet sales. Aren’t those small business owners just guys you want to help in this economy? The better they do, the more jobs they will create, right? And besides, we cyclists can’t accept paying any new taxes and fees on cycling, because we are taxed enough already.”

Here I get all fiscally wonky  and give him my standard, but pretty convincing argument that cyclists actually pay more than their share.  As solid as this argument is, I know that many other people have made the same case with little effect on the current crop of Ryan republicans.  Similarly, my argument does not sway the Governor. 

So I go on the my third reason to fund bicycles, and say “But we ain’t broke.  Governor. Your 2011-2012 WisDOT budget request is $5,582,333,000. I don’t know how much money you are used to handling sir, but I think that if the taxpayers of Wisconsin can afford $5.6 billion for transportation, they ain’t broke.  On the other hand, if we can afford $5.6 billion for highways, but we can’t afford $5 million for bicycles and pedestrians, even though they make up about 14% of all trips, then I do believe our priorities are broken.”

Now I try that old political sales technique of pushing blame on previous administrations. “Governor, I understand that you inherited a mess because previous administrations put off maintianing our roads in order to avoid tough budgetary choices.” Now I have his ear.  To further make my point, I send the Governor the graph below via SMS text, and say “Let’ take a closer look at the situation and how we got here.  The graph is from the WisDOT budget trends study done in 2010.

“What you can see sir, is the previous administrations spent more and more every year to build new roads, but they were not been fiscally responsible enough to increase our maintenance budget to repair all those new highways.  I have added the red triangle to represent the legacy of deferred maintenance your administration inherited.  If you don’t fix the roads now, they will fall apart.  There will be more and more pot holes and more bridges that will fall down like the Hoan and I35 in Minneapolis.”

Note the amount of money spent constructing new highways has gone up, while the maintenance budget has remained flat. The area in red represents the deferred maintenance caused by constructing new highways without increasing maintenance budget.

Now we get into it, and I point out that the red triangle represents a deficit of about $4 billion dollars, a very conservative estimate of how far we are behind on maintenance.  I press ahead and suggest that if we can afford a budget of $5.6 billion, a true conservative would put as much money as possible into maintenance and hold off on the luxuries, like widening I-94 or converting Hwy 41 into an interstate.  We should fix what is broken and tell motorists they are going to have to deal with congestion unless they are willing to take more cost-effective and efficient means of transportation.  Single occupancy vehicles waste a lot of resources.  A crowded freeway is an illusion, since it is typically filled with cars that are 80% empty, about 50% of which are making trips that are short enough to be done more efficiently by transit, cycling or walking.

I’ve lost him again with this rant, but I did make clear that until we get those priorities straightened out, cyclists and the bicycle industry in Wisconsin are not be willing to pay more taxes or fees.  Those of us who are making fiscally conservative, libertarian choices need to stop subsidizing those who are making expensive and wasteful choices before we pay another penny.

To his credit, Governor Walker does recognize that we have to repair our roads, but he is quick to explain to me that because people are driving less (I stifle a “yeah!”) and driving more fuel-efficient cars (“yeah” again!) the gas taxes and registration fees will not cover the deferred maintenance we are faced with, nor will they cover the cost of all the expensive new highways he wants to build.  In order to get more money for roads, the Governor explains that he had to cut a bunch of things from the transportation budget, like transit and $5 million in state funding for bicycles and pedestrians.  Although $5 million seems like a drop in the bucket, Governor Walker suggests that if we count his pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves. 

The Governor goes on to explain how he has suggested that we take up to 50% of the sales tax on motor vehicles from the general fund and put that money into the transportation budget to help pay for all these sexy new road projects and very necessary maintenance projects. I have to admit, from the “pay your own way” point of view, it is hard to argue with this suggestion, and it finally prompts me to suggest my great idea. 

I say, “Great idea Governor, but let’s do the same thing with the sales tax on bicycles and accessories!  There are about $150 million in annual bicycle sales in the State of Wisconsin. If we took the 5% sales tax those sales generate for the general fund and put them in transportation, we would have $7,500,000 to spend on bicycles.  That is way more than you had to cut from the budget.”

I could go on to argue that while he is only proposing to take 50% of sales taxes from cars, 100% of bike sales taxes should be spent on bike projects. I could argue that leaving 50% of the sales tax on cars in the general fund makes sense since it goes to pay for many of the social costs of driving cars, namely negative impacts health care.  Since more people riding bicycles actually has a positive effect on the general economy by reducing health care costs, all the money should go to fund bicycle projects.

So what do you think? Good idea?  Will republicans buy it? If it’s good for the goose (motorists), is it good for the gander (cyclists)?   


About daveschlabowske

Cyclechic advocate from Milwaukee
This entry was posted in Advocacy, Transportation Funding and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Cyclists paying our way, Walker style

  1. Mara Kuhlmann says:

    Yes, good idea, and great, rational points,but you’ll never get that much time with him. You don’t have the dollars and therefore influence of the Koch brothers. Pare it down to a 30-second elevator speech with the key points, plus 2 or 3 additional add-on 30-scd segments ready to deliver if he stays on the phone to add more detail.

  2. Michael Callovi says:

    You’re a genius!!

    I don’t know how well you can sell it to our wise & venerated leaders, but as a consumer (I have 5 bicycles, my wife has 2, daughter has one) if someone told me that all of the sales taxes on that bicycle were going to fund places to ride it, I would feel like I’m only helping myself. I might even spring for a little higher-end bike since I would be able to ride it more places…

  3. Tim K says:


    Well put and argued and if any of the gov’s plans and ideas were grounded in reality your arguments would win the day. Sadly that is not the case as your very arguments point out, nothing about the transportation plan is logical. It’s all about rewarding political supports. Go ahead and lob that bomb and see what happens… if you don’t ask you don’t get.

  4. PF says:

    To piggyback on Michael Callovi’s point, I’d feel even better about buying some accessories from my local shop, rather than online, knowing that my sales tax would go to this cause.

  5. Will says:

    Have you practiced this presentation by giving it to a rock or family pet? That would help prepare you for the Gov. 🙂

  6. Peter Lee says:

    Go for it, Dave. As has been said, “What could it hoit?” IF you can get his ear for even 30 secs.

    See you up on Hoan on 6/5!

  7. Ronsta says:

    Go for it Dave!

    Although I feel I already pay “my share” in a number of ways out here in Waukesha.

    One, I have to purchase a $25.00 annual trail pass from the DNR to use the Glacial Drumlin Trail for commuting.

    Two, I also purchased the $27.00 annual county park sticker here for the occasions I drive to one of our parks to ski. The County parks also maintain the Bugline, New Berlin & Lake Country Trails, which I frequently use.

    Three, I still pay registration, insurance and fuel for a car I only drive about twice a week. My bicycle takes up less space and does a lot less wear & tear on the roads then my car.

    Bicycle infrastructure costs only a small fraction of what any road project costs and has too many benefits to list. Car registration is a steal at $85.00 compared to what road construction costs. What would be a comparable fee to cyclists, can you split pennies that small?

  8. Barry Stuart says:

    On so many levels, investment in bicycle facilities and proper road maintenance makes sense. I find the most efficient connection for the Oak Leaf Trail between Bay View and the East Side would be the Hoan Bridge. I intend to prove that point this June on the UPAF Ride for the Arts. Also, deferring street maintenance results in fiascos like the North and Oakland sinkhole or the collapse of the Hoan. And don’t forget the added expense we bicyclists pay at our LBS for repairs on bikes that have taken a beating.

  9. still rollin says:

    Like 🙂

  10. kennyd says:

    Yes it sucks that we loose any money that was for cycling but really what was the money for. Did it have a purpose or was it just a fund for the DOT to sponge off of to make budgets. This was guberment work after all so 75% of the money would have been eaten up in admin, planning and engineering cost. At least there is still 5 million in federal dollars to be spent in Wisconsin . Maybe we should put a little bit of the bash walker energy into the DOT to educate the drivers we all ready have on the roads to care for cyclist.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Bicycles and pedestrians are a cheap date and that $5 million would do a tremendous amount of good work. Many real projects at local levels are affected by the loss of that money. It has been proven over and over again that the way to get more people riding bicycles is to build more bicycle facilities that are attractive to a wider range of people and make it more convenient to go places on a bicycle.

      Actually the remaining federal dollars are harder to spend than the state dollars. Our administrative costs to process grants have skyrocketed over the last four years or so because WisDOT privatized the review of those federal grants and replaced a single state engineer who reviewed the local programs witn an entire engineering firm. This is one of the cases where it was WAY cheaper to have government run a program than a private firm. But even with the increase in oversight costs billed out by the engineering firm, our administrative and preliminary engineering costs are only about 25%, which is about 10% above our traditional local costs that don’t involve state and federal oversight.

      As to educating motorists, I agree that we should be spending more on education and enforcement, but we have to admit that has and extremely high cost and pretty poor results. Look at all the effort that goes into getting motorists to drive the speed limit and stop driving drunk and the little good it does. At the end of the day, getting more people riding bicycles is done by making bicycling more attractive and more convenient through a very complete network of similarly attractive and convenient facilities, which usually involves building segragation away from cars.

      I think one lesson here is the more we can use local dollars to do local projects, the better. That argument still works for bicycles , but not for transit, where the new state leadership have over-ruled local decisions.

  11. Dave Reid says:

    @Dave Now why didn’t I think of that… very interesting idea.

  12. Carolyn W. says:

    I really like this idea and I also would spend more money on my bikes if I knew the taxes went to things I use, like bike trails (such as the Riverside HS Oak Leaf Trail entrance….so badly needs repair) and infrastructure I use on a daily basis. Also it would help out the bike shops in encouraging people to shop there more rather then Internet sales as it was pointed out.
    Wish you luck getting Walker to listen. Maybe after not getting the rail money he can encourage people to bike instead to Chicago 😉

  13. Chris says:

    In my mind, the best way to educate motorists about biker-care — get more bikers on the roads. A steady stream of cyclists in bike lanes is a lot more visible than the lone biker here and there. Also, make lanes clearly visible. If it were me, 95% of available funds would go toward additional infrastructure improvements, period.

    That aside, I love your argument Dave. I’m just not sure that you can reason with an unreasonable person.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      I agree with you Chris on a lot of levels about safety in numbers. Pedestrian issues are a good example of why we need additional education and enforcement. Everyone is a pedestrian, and we have tons of people walking, but still very few motorists yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk and pedestrians are killed at a much higher rate than cyclists or motorists. Engineering first, education second, enforcement third, and encouragement to finish it up. Add a fith “E” of evaluation if you want to see if you are making progress.

  14. Dave Steele says:

    I have often said I would more than willing to pay a yearly registration fee, something akin to a “wheel tax” on bikes, if I could be assured that every penny would go into bike friendly infrastructure. But I’m already a cyclist, not a beginner who has yet to be lured from the car to the bike or public transit. I understand that a new tax is tantamount to a tax on a healthy activity and might be a disincentive to biking for transportation.

    This is a good idea because it’s a not a new tax, just a redirection of an existing tax. It helps define bikes as transportation options, because, after all, sales tax receipts from footballs and other sporting goods would not be diverted to the transportation fund like they would be from bike sales.

    In today’s crazy political climate, I keep hoping for that one argument, that one policy position, that can convince fiscal conservatives that it’s actually fiscally conservative to invest in existing infrastructure in cities rather than build new highways out where few people currently live.

    Sadly, I’m convinced that no rational argument can work, because the widespread disinvestment in existing infrastructure is based on an irrational hatred and distrust of cities that is as old as the Republic itself. It’s this same mindset that conceives of bikes for transportation as some kind of “luxury” that a few people on the fringe do. It’s the same mindset that sees transit as a form of “welfare” carting around poor people.

    Today I’m going to hop on my bike to get home from work, because I am not dependent on a car. What a wonderful expression of American freedom. Us city dwellers in many ways are the true libertarians, breaking free from dependence on foreign sources of energy. Were it not for the millions of us across the United States who have the ability to not drive to get to work, to get to the store, etc., the nation would consume even more energy than it does now, meaning the gas prices for everyone would be even higher.

    And yet public transit is on the brink, our local streets are crumbling and billions we don’t really have are sunk into new roads, all in the name of “getting things moving again.” It’s not rational.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      I feel exactly the same way Dave, but I think the problems are exacerbated in the deindustrialized, hypersegregated, poor areas like Milwaukee. I just keep pushing those bad thoughts out of my head and try to go to my happy place so I can keep doing my job. If I acted on my real beliefs I’d quit this afternoon. I’m thinking about gosslings and Alterra bike corrals now…

  15. Ded Hed says:

    Dave as someone who already pays to play, 3 vehicles registered, conservation patron license, etc I wouldn’t have a problem paying a “reasonable” fee if it all went to bike stuff, preferably infrastructure. I would have a problem paying some sort of fee for my 12 YO who might ride 100m a year. Something along the lines of Pittman – Robertson tax on hunting stuff would be OK instead too.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      I think most cyclists feel about the same way, but it is a slippery slope we can’t go down. I did mention this idea to a couple people higher up in the state bicycle advocacy world than I. I hope they take it to the governor.

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