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These 2 Charts Prove American Drivers Don't Pay Enough for Roads

These 2 Charts Prove American Drivers Don't Pay Enough for Roads
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Many Americans may not have a clue that the country is in the midst of a road-funding crisis. On the contrary, drivers see $4 gas, and $13 tolls, and HOT lanes that charge them to drive beside free ones — and probably think road wallets run deep. A recent survey found that a quarter of Americans believe they pay twice as much in gas taxes as the national average suggests they do.

But America is in the midst of a road-funding crisis, and part of the problem is that drivers don't pay enough for roads.

That fact comes through in a series of charts produced by transport researchers Juan Gomez and José Manuel Vassallo for an upcoming issue of the Journal of Infrastructure Systems. Gomez and Vassallo compared approaches to road funding in the United States and five European countries for the period of 2004 to 2009. They found that Americans paid "noticeably lower" road charges than Europeans.

Two charts in particular tell the story. Chart one:


Charts via Gomez, J. and Vassallo, J. (2013). "A Comparative Analysis of Road Financing Approaches in Europe and the United States." J. Infrastruct. Syst., 10.1061/(ASCE)IS.1943-555X.0000193 (Sep. 13, 2013).

Here Gomez and Vassallo present the ratios of road expenditures to road revenue. The U.S. ratio is not only higher than those of Spain, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and even Switzerland, it's also higher than 1 — indicating that America spends more on roads than it generates in road charges.

Why is that the case? Perhaps the United States builds too many roads, or maybe the roads we do build are too expensive. But the core of the problem comes back to the federal gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1993 and loses purchasing power to inflation every day. These two lost decades of road taxes are the reason the Highway Trust Fund, which is supposed to cover road costs, is expected to fail in 2015.

Meanwhile, as Gomez and Vassallo point out, European countries take in far more road revenue than they spend. As a result, the road system in Europe can be (and is) used to subsidize other public programs. That's the opposite case of the United States, where general income taxes have subsidized the Highway Trust Fund to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in recent years.

Now for chart two:


Charts via Gomez, J. and Vassallo, J. (2013). "A Comparative Analysis of Road Financing Approaches in Europe and the United States." J. Infrastruct. Syst., 10.1061/(ASCE)IS.1943-555X.0000193 (Sep. 13, 2013).

Here the researchers depict the annual road charges paid by drivers of typical cars in 2012 — a total that includes gas taxes as well as tolls and other vehicle fees. Once again the comparison isn't even close. Despite failing to cover the cost of their roads, American drivers pay much less per year than drivers in developed European countries.

To wit: Americans pay around $450 a year in road charges, according to the data compiled by Gomez and Vassallo. That's roughly 3 to 4 times less drivers from other countries in the study. Once again the key culprit is the gas tax. U.S. gas tax rates are up to 83 percent lower for gasoline cars and 81 percent lower for diesel cars compared to the same taxes paid in European nations.

Gomez and Vassallo conclude:

The US funding model has showed itself to have a limited capacity to meet the increasing demands of road programs in the future. In this respect, it seems clear that significantly relying for the securing of funds on non-revisable or seldom-revisable charges, as happens with the federal gas tax in the US, makes the system unsustainable in the long-term.

Ideas for improving the U.S. funding model vary. Some feel that taxing miles traveled is the way to go. Others suggest tolling every interstate in the country. Still others suggest we stick it out with a higher gas tax. What's clear, in any scenario, is that American drivers will have to start paying more to drive — because whether the realize it or not, they've paid too little for too long.

Top image: Tim Roberts Photography /Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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