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Car Subsidy as a Cost-Recovery Measure for St. Paul: Time to CARPe Diem

The Climate Action and Resilience Plan (CARP) recently passed by the St. Paul City Council is an excellent, and necessary, first step to move St. Paul toward a sustainable future. You can read the plan here.

Making the plan’s vision a reality will require developing many specifics that the plan does not flesh out. It’s also going to require going beyond our usual ways of solving problems and moving through our community. I have a suggestion about one specific target for change identified in the report — reducing single-occupancy motor vehicle travel demand. For simplicity, let’s just call that reducing car use.

As the report notes, travel is currently the single largest, and growing, contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the city (and the state). The plan includes nine “Key Initiatives” under the objective of reducing travel-based emissions; all are valuable. Yet I’m concerned that those initiatives alone won’t create the kind of culture change necessary to truly shift away from our dependence on cars.

One of the key initiatives in addressing transportation emissions is to “provide a stable funding source” to implement the recommendations of the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan. I agree that identifying the money necessary to support the work of the plan — which calls for more transportation options, more electric vehicles and fewer vehicle miles traveled — will be vital to its success.

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I-94 traffic looking east from Western Avenue during a Monday morning commute. (Pioneer Press: John Doman)

Following are some inter-related facts that lead to my suggestion:

Fact: Car use contributes the majority of travel-related emissions in the city.

Fact: Car use is the most significant contributor to non-tailpipe emissions of asthma-causing atmospheric particulate matter (PM) with diameters of less than 2.5 micrometers, through brake and tire wear; this is as much a problem with electric cars as with combustion-engine cars.

Fact: Car use, particularly that of light-duty passenger vehicles and heavy-duty vehicles, add significantly to wear and tear on city streets, yet costs for repair and maintenance of our streets do not directly confront or differentiate drivers of those vehicles.

Fact: Car use is one of the most, if not the most, heavily subsidized activities in which residents of our city engage on a daily basis, and those subsidies are a key part of travel demand by car.

Fact: Many residents of St. Paul complain incessantly about potholes and road maintenance in the city but fail to recognize their car use as a contributing factor to road damage and maintenance costs.

Fact: Many homeowners in St. Paul complain incessantly about their property taxes, but they often fail to recognize that their property tax, based on the value of their property, reflects wealth they have accumulated.

Fact: Homeowners, who make up only about 50 percent of city residents but who hold the majority of property wealth in the city, are also more likely than renters to own cars, and to own more of them. For the record, I am a homeowner, too.

Fact: Although not all of the subsidies to car use are readily quantifiable and under the city’s jurisdiction, many are and should be quantified.

Here’s my idea: In order to create an equitable funding source to support some of the needed efforts identified in the Climate Action and Resilience Plan, the city should quantify the subsidies promoting car use that currently are under city jurisdiction.

The city then should develop a fee structure to charge residents, based on the number of motor vehicles registered to them, as a way to recover those costs currently borne by the city. Light-duty passenger and heavy-duty vehicles should be assessed at a higher rate, for several reasons:

  1. Their greater wear and tear to our streets.
  2. To compensate for federal tax loopholes going back as far as 1986 that encourage purchases of such vehicles.
  3. The more severe injuries and higher fatality rates that result when drivers of such vehicles hit pedestrians or cyclists.

A two-way split should designate one portion of these fees for directly supporting actions identified in the climate action plan and designate the other portion to provide property-tax relief to households with no vehicles registered in a given year.

Making the current subsidies to car use more apparent, and recovering some of the costs to the city that are reflected in those subsidies, has the potential to substantially change the car-dominant culture that is making the planet — and our community — uninhabitable. The climate crisis is urgent. Our actions to address it must be equally so.

For the future livability of our city and our planet, I sincerely hope that all of us will CARPe diem!

Brian C. Martinson

About Brian C. Martinson

I'm a resident of St. Paul, former Chair of the transportation committee of the Macalaster-Groveland Community Council and serve as the "non-motorized" representative on MetCouncil's Transportation Advisory Boar - TAB. A PhD in Sociology (Demography), and postdoctoral work in Epidemiology. I'm a year-round utility-cyclist. In other settings I think and write a lot about science policy, the biomedical research workforce, and the integrity of science.