Massachusetts’ $64 billion car economy

For more than 100 years, Americans have had a love affair with our cars.

Cars symbolize freedom, the ability to go where we want when we want, something that has become embedded in the American experience.

Just don’t ever think that freedom is cheap or entirely borne by the car owner.

A Harvard Kennedy School report released this month puts a $64 billion annual price tag on the total cost of keeping 4.5 million private passenger cars and light trucks rolling on Massachusetts roads.

That $64 billion figure includes road construction and maintenance costs to the commonwealth of Massachusetts and to local cities and towns. It also assigns a dollar amount for congestion, injuries due to traffic crashes, greenhouse gas emissions and even the land use value of parking lots, along with direct consumer costs – financing, gas, maintenance, insurance, etc. – for those who drive vehicles.

The cost of what the Harvard study refers to as “the vehicle economy” is almost certainly much higher here in Washington.

Not only does our state have more people – Washington and Massachusetts rank 13th and 15th, respectively, for population among the 50 states – but Washington is more than eight times bigger when it comes to geographic area.

Commuting patterns aren’t likely to change anytime soon. As state Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, pointed out in a Dec. 15 opinion piece, a PEMCO Insurance Co. poll last year found that 94 percent of respondents in Washington and Oregon most often drive themselves to work. (Full disclosure: I am part of that 94 percent.)

“Most commuters are simply not going to abandon the use of their cars to get to work,” Kraft wrote.

Kraft and others advocate for construction of a third bridge between Vancouver and Portland over light rail or bus rapid transit, which she writes would “barely move the needle toward congestion relief.”

For the failed Columbia River Crossing, the Federal Transit Administration was prepared to provide $850 million to extend light rail to Clark College, a figure that included rail tracks, trains, transit stations and even Park & Ride lots.

The Harvard Kennedy School study concluded that consumer costs paid by vehicle owners cover about 44 percent of the annual $64 billion bill in Massachusetts, with the public picking up the rest. These public costs total about $14,000 per family in Massachusetts, regardless of whether they own a vehicle.

“Often, policymakers and the public confront huge price tags to update or expand public transportation systems,” Stevie Olson, a Harvard Kennedy School student and lead author of the report, said in a statement. “These costs are usually one-time investments. Our findings throw these estimates into perspective by providing a comparison of the annual costs of motor vehicle infrastructure.”

Just more food for thought in the transit and third bridge debate.

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