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Adjusting Highway Maintenance Taxes for Fuel-Efficient Vehicles


Do Fuel-Efficient Cars Pay Their Fair Share?
Do Fuel-Efficient Cars Pay Their Fair Share?

The Highway Trust Fund, among other funds of its type, depends on fuel taxes, but what happens when the funds dry up, thanks to more fuel-efficient vehicles on the roads?

For decades, it seemed that the best way to fund the maintenance and repair of the Nation’s highway and road system was to tax fuel. Both the federal government and individual states tax the fuel that goes into every truck, car, motorcycle, and bus, among other vehicles. This kind of tax structure makes sense, since heavier vehicles, which do more damage to the road, use more fuel per mile than lighter vehicles. Heavier vehicles pay more tax, lighter vehicles pay less tax. Now that there are more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road today, including those that use no fuel, there is less money coming, in the form of fuel taxes, to pay for road maintenance.

The fight over taxes, especially in the case of fuel-efficient and non-fuel vehicles, has been ongoing, and the Nation’s roads are getting worse. It isn’t the fault of the electric vehicle, however, but the fact that Americans are choosing more fuel-efficient vehicles and driving more than they ever did before. A change is needed. Some States have suggested a flat yearly tax on electric vehicles, for example, or perhaps a per-mile tax, which just seems to be attacking electric vehicles. What if the tax structure was more fairly distributed?

The New York Times contributor Michael Webber has a better idea of how to deal with the influx of more fuel-efficient vehicles, electric vehicles, and a tax system that is more fairly representative. First, eliminate the gas tax, and institute, in its place, a ton-mile tax. The amount of wear and tear on the roads is more directly related to the vehicle’s weight than how much fuel they burn. For example, a typical one-ton car driven 7,500 miles per year will inflict much less damage than a ten-ton tractor-trailer driven 30,000 miles per year. Webber estimates that a 2¢/tm (ton-mile) tax could completely eliminate the fuel tax, and all it would require is for a state inspector to record the odometer reading once a year.

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  1. Fun fact:  Pavement designs are generally calculated by ESAL’s or Equivalent Single Axle Loads (1 esal= 1 18,000 lb axle).  In other words, the properties of the pavement will vary depending on the traffic it will take.  1 passenger car = 0.0007 esal.  1 tractor trailer=6 esals.  We will never be able to tax equivalently, because it will be too expensive.


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