NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Paying for Pet Projects at the Pump

December 2, 2011

The federal and state governments levy taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel primarily to fund highway construction and repair.  These taxes average nearly 49 cents on every gallon of gas purchased.  However, a significant portion of revenue is diverted to other purposes, such as education and public safety.  In addition, states dedicate some of their revenues to nonroad projects mandated by the federal government, say Brian Bodine, a graduate student fellow and Pamela Villarreal, a senior fellow, at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

  • A one cent per gallon federal gasoline tax was first enacted in 1932.
  • Today, it is 18.4 cents.
  • Sixty percent of federal gas tax revenue goes to highways and bridges, and the remainder is earmarked for specific programs, such as repairing lighthouses, paving bike paths and building museums.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) uses a complex series of calculations to allocate funds to the states to build and repair highways, including the interstate highway system, and for other transportation projects.

  • Motorists in half of the states, including Texas, pay more taxes into the fund than their state receives back in federal apportionments.
  • Indeed, U.S. Department of Transportation data show that for every dollar Texans pay in federal fuel taxes, they received only 83.5 cents back.

On average, American motorists pay 30 cents per gallon in state gasoline taxes.  Like federal taxes, these are used for some nontransportation projects.  For example, the Texas Constitution requires 25 percent of its state gas tax revenue to be spent on public education.  The amount going to other nontransportation items varies from 20 percent to 25 percent, with $600 million to $750 million put toward nontransportation items in 2009.

Legislators claim their state must divert state highway funds due to budget shortfalls and insufficient general revenue.  However, funds diverted to a popular cause, such as education, may displace rather than supplement other funding, say Bodine and Villarreal.

Source: Brian Bodine and Pamela Villarreal, "Paying for Pet Projects at the Pump," National Center for Policy Analysis, December 2, 2011.

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