NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Why Per-Mile Tolling Is Better Than Fuel Taxes

February 24, 2014

The fuel tax should be replaced with a per-mile tax, say Robert W. Poole and Adrian T. Moore of the Reason Foundation.

Highways are primarily funded by fuel taxes and have been since 1919, when Oregon became the very first state to institute a fuel tax for the purpose of establishing and maintaining highways. By 1930, the rest of the states had done the same. And in 1956, the federal government established its own fuel tax.

During the 20th century, federal and state fuel tax revenue increased year to year, with the exception of World War II. But the 21st century has been different. Funding has suffered, and will continue to suffer, due to a combination of decreased vehicle travel (due to unemployment as a result of the recession), stringent fuel-economy standards (a per-gallon tax generates a lot less revenue when cars require fewer gallons of gas), and political opposition to increasing the fuel tax.

Poole and Moore provide reasons why a per-mile charge, rather than a tax on fuel, would be a better solution to highway funding, including:

  • A toll per-mile is a direct fee based upon actual use. A fuel tax, on the other hand, is paid regardless of whether a person actually travels on a highway. Funding, thus, would be funneled back to the highway providers in proportion to the amount of miles driven on each road.
  • It is sustainable for the long term. Even if fuel economy standards change -- or if gasoline is replaced entirely with a different energy source -- revenue is steady and directly related to the use, and therefore to the needed maintenance, of the highway system.
  • Those who are actually using highways and bridges will be the ones paying for them, while drivers who do not use those roads will not have to pay the costs of upkeep.
  • If a road needs maintenance or needs to be expanded, the project is more likely to happen because the roads that are used by more people will also generate more revenue, providing necessary financing.
  • Tolling would lead to a reduction in traffic congestion, as demonstrated by pilot projects in various states.

Source: Robert W. Poole and Adrian T. Moore, "Ten Reasons Why Per-Mile Tolling Is a Better Highway User Fee Than Fuel Taxes," Reason Foundation, February 2014.


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