Momentum: Issue #90

January 31, 2022

Transportation and the “Hidden Costs” to Users

By Roger Millar, Washington State Secretary of Transportation

Across the nation and here in Washington state, there continues to be a great deal of interest and discussion related to transportation and funding of our infrastructure needs. As Washington’s top state transportation official and chair of the ITS America board of directors, I think it is important that we look at transportation investments in a different way – one that goes beyond traditional highway investment to address the impacts on our society of underinvestment in multimodal transportation infrastructure.

When you think about the costs of transportation, a lot of people look at the gas tax and fees that they pay, along with the amount of funding that goes to their transportation agencies. For the Washington State Department of Transportation, our annual budget is approximately $4.1 billion, a majority of which is supported by a 49.4-cent gas tax that Washingtonians pay at the pump.

I’m suggesting that we pause here and examine the hidden societal costs that we don’t talk about every day as we use the transportation system. For people in Washington state:

  • The cost of being stuck in traffic is estimated at $2 billion [1] a year.
  • The cost of our roads not being in good shape and what that does to your car or truck is $3.9 billion [2] a year.
  • The impacts from greenhouse gas cost us about $2.3 billion [3] a year.
  • And then, there is the cost of the crashes that happen on our roadway system. Each and every crash is an individual tragedy – lives lost, people injured, property damaged – but it all adds up to $14 billion [4] a year in impact to Washington families and businesses.

That’s $22 billion in costs to the people of our state that we need to talk about more. These costs are far more than our WSDOT budget. In our state, if we were to try to raise the gas tax to generate $22 billion worth of revenue, we’d need to add about $7.50 a gallon to the price you pay at the pump. That’s not likely going to happen.

These societal costs to Washington’s families and businesses are the equivalent of a “hidden gas tax.” What if our transportation investments were aimed at addressing those costs – safety; state of good repair; managing our existing assets to move more people, goods, and services; managing demand for our system; and adding capacity to our active and public transportation infrastructure? We could perhaps save Washington families and businesses a lot of money by reducing these hidden costs and in return assure a better future through improved safety and system resilience.

[1] Congestion cost source: Texas Transportation Institute’s 2021 Urban Mobility Report, based on the value of travel delay and excess fuel consumption statewide.

[2] State of Good Repair source: American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, estimated at $659 per every Washington state driver.

[3] Source: Washington State Department of Ecology, 2018 Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

[4] Societal costs of crashes calculated by WSDOT using methods described in Crash Cost for Highway Safety Analysis (FHWA-SA-17-071), Chapter 6, Federal Highway Administration, Office of Safety, 2018. Economic cost components include medical care, emergency services, market productivity, household productivity, legal costs, insurance administrative costs, workplace costs, property damage and congestion.