What are the operational costs of freeways?

People have long drawn attention to the mismatch between “user fees” — i.e. the Federal and state gas excises — versus the construction and maintenance expenses of our national system of highways and bridges. Has anybody analyzed the operational costs of public roads?

Beach traffic

In yesterday’s discussion about the purpose of empty buses, I mentioned that I’d someday like to shoot photos of empty Bay Area freeways, airports and publicly operated parking garages during off-peak hours as examples of government overspending.

Somebody responded that “comparing empty (or nearly empty) buses with empty freeways or parking lots is not at exact comparison: Highways and parking lots ‘just sit there’, while the bus has a driver collecting a paycheck and fuel that is being consumed.

I don’t believe that’s entirely correct, though. International airports clearly have operational costs. San Jose International Airport, for example, spends $70 million annually on operations. To be fair, the lion’s share of that is paid for through user fees, with the balance coming from Federal grants. Even during off-peak somebody pays for those TSA agents, customs agents, tower personnel, airport noise management, and terminal security. I haven’t been able to find the airports electricity usage, but that fancy new parking garage by Terminal B consumes somewhere around 9 million kwH annually just by itself.

At the other end of the spectrum are publicly owned parking garages. The city of San Jose spends over $11 million each year for their downtown parking operations. Off-peak spending is used to keep the lights on overnight and probably to send a few security people around to keep an eye on skaters.

What about operational spending on highways? For the Bay Area, I listed the Highway Patrol, our freeway courtesy patrols, 911 dispatch centers (operated mostly by the CHP in the Bay Area for mobile calls), and traffic incident management centers that all continue running through the middle of of the night. Road lighting costs money, as does things like roadside landscaping and trash pickup. I also listed Calstar (the air ambulance service), but that’s an error – Calstar is a non-profit with private funding.

What other operational spending occurs at 3 AM on Bay Area freeways?


  1. Traffic monitoring. Instead of fighting real crime they are sitting on the side of a highway looking for DUI’s and speeders.

  2. Opportunity cost of land that could be developed.
    Bond interest.
    Pavement aging due to weather, plants, and soil settlement.
    Landscape watering.
    Increased travel time and lack of safety for pedestrians and bicyclists crossing over the freeway.

  3. Costs of mitigations for lost ecosystem services (esp. higher stormwater runoff rates from more pavement need to be accounted for with more robust drainage systems).

  4. ≈ I’ve seen various attempts to tally up these costs, but one I found particularly enlightening was done by Stanley Hart in the 1990s. He worked for Caltrans, so the numbers were for California, and included everything he could come up with in the public sector. The fraction of police, fire, and emergency services caused by cars is an eye-opener.

    His work was expanded into a book, coauthored with Alvin Spivak and reflecting an interest in fiscal responsibility: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780932727640

    It is a bit dated, and does not include the high price of parking that was later worked out by Donald Shoup.

  5. +Erik – I figured these air ambulance non-profits probably receive public funding but I couldn’t find information in the (very brief) research I did. Thanks for that.

  6. That was my comment that is quoted above, and I also mentioned that I was quite aware of the costs of highways and airports, but that those costs were more “behind the scenes” and not as visible and obvious to the casual observer as a bus with two or three people in it. The average citizen usually becomes aware of the cost of highway maintenance only when there’s a repair crew at work and drivers are delayed by lane closures.

  7. I once did a “rear of a napkin” calculation of how much a 60 mile one-way commuter would pay in fuel taxes (CA & Federal) driving a average compact sedan (20 MPG) for one year and learned that such commuter will pay ~ $660.00 in fuel taxes and when you compare such small contribution of such a commuter makes towards the operation and maintenance of State and Federal roadway/highway network one could conclude or at a minimum arrive to a conclusion that motorist are not paying their fare share towards the upkeep and operation of such infrastructure.

  8. That’s pretty interesting. So it works out to (roughly) $10 per mile per year contributed?

    It also suggests the problem of people like me, who drive high gas mileage cars (40+ MPG) but still impose costs on the roads.

  9. Zossimov, you then need to multiply that tomes 10-100 million for the amount of vehicles the freeway provided. A few $billion$/yr should be enough. In fact, it is VERY profitable!

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