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Like most people, I don’t like paying taxes. Truth be known, I don’t like paying for anything. It would be nice to get everything for free. Of course, that’s not possible, and when I go shopping I pay just as you do. But, right on the spot, I get something for my money. It doesn’t always seem that way when I pay taxes.

That might be part of the reason we all dislike taxes: It’s sometimes hard to see or appreciate what we’re getting for our money. Plus, when I go to Wal-Mart, I have the option of not buying. That choice does not exist with taxes. Pay or go to jail.

We have developed two principles of how to tax. The first is based on ability to pay and the second is based on benefits received. With ability to pay, we tax people according to how much wealth they possess. Those who can afford the most pay the greatest tax. An example is the income tax. The more income a taxpayer has, the more that person will be taxed. It’s why the rich usually pay more than the poor.

Under the benefits received principle, we try to identify how much benefit certain groups of taxpayers get from a particular program and then tax them to pay for it. It’s actually pretty close to shopping for groceries. A person pays for the goods and then gets the benefit from them. The gasoline tax is an example. A significant source of revenue for financing roads is the tax on gasoline. In general the more a driver is on the road, the more gasoline is used. The more gasoline that is bought, the greater the tax paid. Drivers get the benefit of the roads, and the gas tax helps pay to build and maintain them.

But what about bicycles? Bike owners use our streets and highways, but bicycles don’t require any gas and therefore riders don’t pay any gas tax. You could say they are getting a free ride.

Bike owners probably buy gas for the cars they own but they also drive those cars on the streets, so we certainly can’t argue the gas tax is paid for bicycles. And what about bike trails? Black Hawk County and the Cedar Valley has a fantastic trail system. It’s the envy of a lot of communities and we see cyclists on them all of the time. But, did they pay to use those trails? Nope.

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Bicyclists argue they have a legal right to use the roads and trails, and they do. But unlike motorists they don’t pay for them. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem right. So, how about a benefits-received tax for bicycles? Why can’t we put a tax on every bike sold and use the proceeds to develop and maintain our trails or perhaps to support the roads used by the cyclists? Given that many bikes cost well into four figures, I think most purchasers could afford a tax. It doesn’t have to be a flat tax; it could be based on value of the bike. Alternatively, it could be paid through a license fee on bikes.

Automobile users of our roads pay their way. It only seems fair bicycles should as well.

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Fred Abraham is a professor and head of economics at the University of Northern Iowa.

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