Take this survey: How Should Wisconsin Pay for Bicycling?

The initial draft of the 2015-2017 transportation budget included discussion of an annual tax of $25 on bicycles. The Wisconsin Bike Fed and our state bicycle industry was quick to object and all references to the bike tax were quickly removed from the budget. Fast forward two years, and a similar bike tax seems to have strong bipartisan support in Oregon.

With Wisconsin facing a transportation funding shortfall of between $500 million and $939 million over the next two years, and Governor Walker pledging to veto any increase in the state gas tax or vehicle registration fees, could legislators look to Wisconsin cyclists to pay more? We want to know how you would like to see bicycle infrastructure funded, and have embedded a very short survey at the bottom of this longish blog post. Feel free skip reading this and take the survey if you already know how you feel about bike taxes, registration fees, and the gas tax.

Take the survey

The Governor’s Executive Budget for 2017-2019 did not include any mention of a tax on bicycles, but legislators on the budget writing Joint Finance Committee set aside the governor’s transportation budget over concerns about borrowing and major road building delays.

The root of the problem is the gas tax. The 20.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax combines with our 30.9 cents per gallon state gas tax adds up to 51.3 cents per gallon. That may sound like a lot, but the federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993 while the state gas tax has not seen an increase since 2005. Meanwhile, costs to build roads have continued to grow. Compounding that problem is the growing fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet.

The table below from a Legislative Reference Bureau memo provides estimated gross transportation fund revenue, estimated transportation fund-supported debt service, and debt service as a percentage of this revenue under DOT’s 2017-19 budget request.Gross Transportation Fund Revenue and Transportation Fund Supported Debt Service under DOT’ s 2017-19 Budget Request* ($ in Millions)

Year Gross Transportation Fund Revenue Transportation Fund Debt Service Debt Service as a % of Revenue
2017-2018 $1,872.40 $407.90 21.80%
2018-2019 $1,872.70 $429.20 22.90%

So more than 20% of our state transportation budget comes from borrowing. The math is irrefutable, cars just aren’t paying their way anymore. But cutting funding for non-motorized transportation (bicycling and walking) and things like community sensitive design are not going to solve the problem. Even if you stripped all funding for bicycling, walking (2%) and transit (7%) from the transportation budget, we would still need to find another 21% to cover the deficit.

For decades, we at the Wisconsin Bike Fed argued that people who ride bikes already are paying our fair share. We have made the case that we already pay annual or daily state trail pass fees, and we pay property taxes, which pay for the local roads where we ride most of the time. Since most of us also drive cars, we pay the gas tax and vehicle registration fees and have a right to ask that some of that be used to fund infrastructure for bicycling and walking.

We have also made the case that when people ride bicycles for basic transportation they reduce congestion and the need to expand roads. Factor in reductions in air pollution and health care costs and you would think we should be doing all we can to encourage people to ride bikes.

Instead, Wisconsin only spends about 2% of our transportation budget on active transportation, even though when combined, bicycling and walking make up about 10% of all trips. Add that our state bicycle industry pays millions of dollars in taxes, that bicycling contributes $2 billion to our state economy, accounting for more than 14,000 jobs, and you might well make the argument that we are taxed enough already.

But the political reality is that among many legislators those arguments have fallen on deaf ears. Even friendly legislators who agree with our arguments and think bicycling is a great investment of state resources tell us that it would help our case if we offered even a token amount to prove we have more skin in the game.

Essentially, that is what the Oregon tax is all about. As proposed at press time, Oregon would impose a 3% tax on new bicycles costing $500 or more. Critics argue most bicycles are sold at big box stores for less than that, so this would amount to an attack on local bike shops and quality brands like Trek, Fyxation, Milwaukee Bicycle Company, Waterford Precision Cycles, and Wyatt.

If our legislature proposed such a bicycle tax again, the Wisconsin Bike Fed and our state bicycle industry would fight it tooth and nail. Beyond fighting a poorly vetted excise tax on bicycles, we would like to know what our members think we should advocate for in the search for a politically palatable, sustainable transportation funding system.

Please take a few minutes to answer the quick, two-question survey below. After we get the results, we will share them with you and our elected officials in Madison.


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

6 thoughts on “Take this survey: How Should Wisconsin Pay for Bicycling?

  1. There is currently no sales tax in Oregon so what Oregon is proposing is a limited sales tax on bicycles. Given that the states surrounding Oregon already have much more than a 3% sales tax, a person wanting to purchase a bicycle in Oregon would probably still do it although the person might be able to escape the tax by buying the bicycle on the internet.

    • Greg is correct. Such a tax would encourage consumers to net shop, at the expense of the local independent bicycle dealers we rely on for not only our purchases, but routine maintenance of our bikes. Most of us are also motorists, so we need to insist that our gas tax $ go to build complete streets.

  2. If a bicycle weighting < 50# pays a fee of $25 dollars then agricultural equipment weighting 10 ton+ should pay a fee based on weight also.Those vehicles do damage well beyond a bicycle tire. So a fee/tax on bicycle,a fee/tax in ratio to weight and damage is appropriate .
    Robert Enloe , Fed Member

  3. Most options listed in the survey are symbolic and might not even cover the costs of administering the programs, let alone helping with the transportation budget. Below are some positions that I would support BFW taking (please excuse the clumsy language):

    (1) Wisconsin must adopt a fuel-agnostic funding model — e.g., a usage-based tax based on miles driven and impact per mile. Bikers will pay our fair share.

    (2) Insurance companies are a potent agent of transportation change. Wisconsin should work with them to (A) develop technologies for the usage-based tax, (B) speed the adoption of beneficial technology such as autonomous driving, and (C) change auto insurance into transportation insurance, covering bikes and other vehicles.

    (3) Autonomous driving will safely double vehicle density, reducing the number of highway widening projects and saving billions of dollars, which indirectly benefits bicyclists.

    (4) A statewide bike registration where the fees are distributed equitably. The current municipal registration systems are inefficient slush funds that we hope are being put to good use.

    (5) With e-biking still in its infancy but poised to explode, it’s a good time to classify electric vehicles and require title, registration, transfer sales tax, insurance, etc. Remember that e-bikes can rival a motorcycle.

    • Great comments, Craig. Some responses.

      1. A vehicle miles traveled tax is generally viewed by people who study this stuff as the best answer. It was even recommended by a WI study commission on how to pay for transportation. It’s technically pretty easy, but politically difficult because people think it’s the government monitoring where you travel. Still, there’s a good chance that this is how we’ll be paying for roads within a decade.

      2. The insurance industry is watching the self-driving vehicle developments very closely, but to my knowledge they haven’t taken a position.

      3. Because self-driving cars that can communicate with one another can “train up” it should make each lane mile much more efficient, so does it make a lot of sense to be investing billions in major freeway expansions that are built to last 70 years?

      4. Local bike registration isn’t really a slush fund. It’s more like a slush trickle. In Madison bike registration yields something like $30,000 on a $250 million city budget.

      5. Agreed that e-bikes are the next big thing. We’re working on a bill to regulate their use appropriately.

  4. This is very simple.

    We should oppose taxes on bikes, because such a tax is taxing something that the State should instead be promoting. Instead, do two things:
    1. Tax sugary beverages (because consumption of sugary beverages is something the state should be deterring, because of the many adverse affects on health sugary beverages have). Since 2014, eight major municipalities in the U.S. have adopted “soda” taxes (Berkeley, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland, Albany, Boulder, Chicago and Seattle). The tax in Philadelphia alone is projected to result in $400MM in new revenue to the city over the first 5 years of the program. And, if a person does not want to pay a sugary beverage tax, he or she simply doesn’t have to be buy sugary beverages.
    2. Legalize marijuana and tax it. There are many other benefits that would flow from Wisconsin legalizing marijuana. Just look at what has happened in conservative Colorado since Colorado legalized marijuana in 2015: over 18,000 new jobs created in the new industry, and in the first year, Colorado raised more than $135MM in new taxes and fees on marijuana, and the new industry has given a significant boost to Colorado’s tourism industry. Where are the conservative libertarians in Wisconsin on this issue, and why haven’t they been able to convince their fellow conservative Republicans to oppose the State from interfering with an individuals decision to use or not use marijuana? On four states in the U.S. currently outlaw all marijuana possession and use, and the nationwide trend is clearly towards legalization. And again, if a person doesn’t want to pay a marijuana tax, the person can choose not to consume marijuana.

    This perennial tiresome debate about the transportation budget and the logjam on the gas tax issue is easily solved, if our state elected officials will just approach the problem from a different angle. If our elected officials want to show they favor innovative-thinking, want better citizen health (less obesity, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease), lower healthcare costs, lower healthcare insurance costs, a significant boost to tourism, and a significant increase in new jobs, they should support the above two proposals. Let’s be the first state to adopt a state-wide tax on sugary beverages, and let’s not be the last state to legalize marijuana.

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