Brace yourself: it’s tax time.
Earlier this month, Oregon passed a highly publicized – and highly controversial – bicycle tax: the first statewide measure of its kind in US history. Understandably, the response has been charged on both sides of the cycling spectrum, particularly considering the fact that Portland, Oregon is home to the highest bicycle commuter percentage in the nation among big cities.
So what does this mean to the cycling community at large? Well, in order to better understand the issue it helps to take a look at some of the most common questions that that surround it, starting with the most basic.
Find the Perfect Ride in Oregon Without Paying a Bicycle Tax:
What (or whom) exactly does the bicycle tax apply to?
Oregon’s $15 excise bicycle tax applies to new bike purchases over $200 that have a wheel diameter of 26 inches or more. According to the National Bicycle Dealers Association, that pretty much means any bike not sold by mass merchants like discount outlets and toy stores.
The measure was passed on July 6th, 2017, as part of a landmark $5.3 billion transportation bill.
How much annual revenue will it generate?
According to state estimates, Oregon should see an extra $1.2 million raised every year thanks to the bicycle tax, minus $100,000 in administrative expenses.
What is the money allocated towards?
Theoretically, the tax will be used to fund the Connect Oregon initiative, a group whose stated mission is to “invest in air, rail, marine, transit, and bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure.” Given the state’s unfunded pension liability problems, however, a looming deficit which stood at $22-billion back in 2015, there’s some scepticism that all of the money will find its way to its intended destination.
Why was the bicycle tax levied in the first place?
The common thinking is that, since bicyclists use public roadways but are exempt from payments such as vehicle registration fees or gas taxes, they should bear some responsibility for the upkeep of public infrastructure.
Does this argument hold water?
Yes and no. Obviously cyclists, like everyone else, are responsible for the upkeep of utilities such as bike lanes, public roadways, etc. Things get a little contentious, however, when you break down the details. First of all, many Oregon cyclists are vehicle owners as well (up to 90%, according to one 2009 survey). This means the vast majority of them do, in fact, pay the same maintenance costs as non-cyclists.
Furthermore, when you look at the mathematics behind roadway wear and tear, there’s a stark contrast between the physical effects of driving and cycling. It all has to do with what the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) calls the Fourth Power Rule.
What is the Fourth Power Rule?
Basically, it’s the formula used to determine the amount of damage a particular vehicle causes to a paved surface or roadway. According to the AASHTO, “damage caused by vehicles is related to the 4th power of their axle weight.”
Let’s take a look at one comparative example. A bicycle (with rider) has an axle weight of 100 lbs, while an average full-size SUV has an axle weight of around 3,000 lbs. Plug the numbers into our Fourth Power Rule and we arrive at the following equation:
In other words, an SUV causes over 800,000 times more damage to paved surfaces than a bicycle. Eek.
Will other state legislatures follow Oregon’s lead?
It’s too early to say. Shortly after the bill’s passage, a Colorado Republican lawmaker suggested implementing a similar bicycle tax in the Centennial State. He has since backed away from this proposal, however.
More broadly speaking, the city of Colorado Springs has had a flat $4 bicycle tax in place since 1988. On its 20th anniversary in 2008, the city’s Gazette newspaper published an article lauding the tax and its positive impact on the surrounding trail system.
Only time will tell if Oregonians will experience a similar change of heart.