The Hidden Costs of Driving

Joe Cortright in The Atlantic: “A report published earlier this year confirms, in tremendous detail, a very basic fact of transportation that’s widely disbelieved: Drivers don’t come close to paying for the costs of the roads they use.”

“The report documents that the amount that road users pay through gas taxes now accounts for less than half of what’s spent to maintain and expand the road system. The resulting shortfall is made up from other sources of tax revenue at the state and local levels, generated by drivers and non-drivers alike. This subsidizing of car ownership costs the typical household about $1,100 per year—over and above the costs of gas taxes, tolls, and other user fees.”

“While congressional bailouts of the Highway Trust Fund have made this subsidy more apparent, it has actually never been the case that road users paid their own way. Not only that, but the amount of their subsidy has steadily increased in recent years. The share of the costs paid from road-user fees has dropped from about 70 percent in the 1960s to less than half today, according to the study.”

The Cumulative Difference Between Public Spending on Highways and How Much Drivers Pay to Use Them

“The fact that user fees are too low not only means that there isn’t enough revenue, but that demand is too high. One value of higher user fees would be that they would discourage excessive use of the roads, lessen wear and tear, and in many cases obviate the need for costly construction projects.”


  1. Who’d have the guts to propose this, though? You think Americans are emotional about their guns? Not compared to their cars.

  2. When Congress imposed an excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuel as the primary mechanism to fund federal highway spending but failed to index those taxes to inflation, Congress virtually guaranteed that spending would outstrip funding. The same is true for the various states and their gasoline/diesel taxes.

  3. You don’t have to drive to ‘use’ the roads. A whole lotta lettuce, and every other truckable commodity would never get to non-drivers without those highways. Paying for a share of that seems fair, no?

    1. Pretty sure it wouldn’t get to drivers either. Unless they want to drive to the farms and buy it directly. Which only really works during the summer, and only if you live in the right kind of farming country.

      We all pay for roads with our taxes (through municipal taxes, if nothing else), but the idea here is to penalize the people who use the roads the most. If you’re not driving, but you live in a city and go to stores stocked with goods that got there by road (and by rail, let’s remember), that’s not putting any additional strain on the infrastructure. But if you go to those stores and are constantly using the roads yourself (and there are a whole lot of city-dwellers who have cars), you should pay more. You’re getting extra use out of the infrastructure, and are putting extra wear and tear on it.

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