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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Do Motor-Vehicle Users in the US Pay Their Way?

  • Author(s): Delucchi, Mark
  • et al.

Governments in the US spend over a hundred billion dollars per year to build and maintain roads and provide a variety of services for motor-vehicle users. To pay for these infrastructure and services governments collect revenue from a variety of taxes and fees. The basic objective of this paper is to compare these government expenditures with the corresponding user tax and fee payments in the US. At the outset I argue that the such comparisons tell us something about the equity but not necessarily the economic efficiency of highway financing. I then present four different ways one might tally up government expenditures and user payments, depending on the extent to which one wishes to count ‘‘indirect’’ expenditures (e.g., on prosecuting car thieves) and non-targeted general-tax payments (e.g., severance taxes on oil). I make a comprehensive analysis of all possible expenditures and payments, and then compare them according to three of the four ways of counting expenditures and payments. The analysis indicates that in the US current tax and fee payments to the government by motor-vehicle users fall short of government expenditures related to motor-vehicle use by approximately 20–70 cents per gallon of all motor fuel. (Note that in this accounting we include only government expenditures; we do not include any ‘‘external’’ costs of motor-vehicle use.) The extent to which one counts indirect government expenditures related to motor-vehicle use is a key factor in the comparison.

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