Q: Should Gasoline Taxes Be Used Exclusively for Highways?

By Fay, William D.; Slater, Rodney E. | Insight on the News, May 26, 1997 | Go to article overview

Q: Should Gasoline Taxes Be Used Exclusively for Highways?


Fay, William D., Slater, Rodney E., Insight on the News


Yes: With roads and bridges in dire need of repair, stop using highway monies for unrelated projects.

As Congress and the president consider how to spend the limited funds collected from highway users, they should start by looking at the facts. Ninety-seven percent of all surface travel occurs on highways. Seventy-eight percent of the value of all freight moves across highways. During the last decade, driving to work alone was the only form of commuting that increased. In fact, the number of people commuting alone is growing faster than the number of new jobs. Working parents, who depend on their automobiles to help balance their busy schedules, are most responsible for that growth. Yet, our highways are beginning to deteriorate from underinvestment, and highway fatalities have been on the rise during the last four years. These trends all point to one simple solution: Target our limited federal highway dollars toward road and bridge improvements.

The practice of collecting federal fuel taxes from highway users to pay for the construction, maintenance and administration of highways and bridges dates back to 1956. In that year, President Eisenhower signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act that began construction of the Interstate Highway System. The act imposed a 3-cents-per-gallon federal fuel tax and created the Highway Trust Fund to hold the revenues. In establishing the Highway Trust Fund, Congress made a simple pledge to the American driving public: If you will pay the gasoline taxes, the federal government will invest that money in our nation's roads and bridges. This pay-as-you-go-system (by law, expenditures from the trust fund cannot exceed revenues) also is the perfect user fee. The more you drive, the more you pay for highways.

Since 1956, the federal highway program has been focused largely on constructing the Interstate Highway System -- unquestionably one of the best investments our nation ever made. The interstate highways have saved the lives of at least 187,000 people, prevented injuries to nearly 12 million people, returned more than $6 in economic productivity for every $1 in cost and made America the most mobile nation on the planet.

As important as the interstates are to our economy and quality of life, they were planned in the fifties for a fifties economy and geography. To keep up with the economic and demographic changes of the past four decades, Congress in 1995 designated a 21st-century successor to the interstates -- the National Highway System, or NHS. The NHS is 161,000 miles of our most important roads and includes the 45,000 miles of interstate highways. Although the NHS constitutes only 4 percent of total road miles, it carries 40 percent of all highway travel, 75 percent of all commercial truck travel and 80 percent of all vacation travel. Without the NHS, many businesses could not compete in national and international marketplaces. In addition, military readiness would be put at grave risk because of the inability to mobilize quickly, and the freedom for individual Americans to travel where they want, when they want, severely would be hampered.

The federal fuel taxes motorists pay have increased since 1956 to 18.3 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.3 cents per gallon of diesel fuel. One would think Congress would continue to defend the integrity of the Highway Trust Fund by investing every penny of these user fees in highway programs of national importance, such as the NHS. But that is not the case. Simply put, federal highway policy has taken a wrong turn. The taxes highway users pay today, with the once-solemn promise that they would be dedicated solely to highway and bridge improvements, are being diverted to a broad range of nonhighway uses. While the federal government collects around $31.5 billion a year from motorists, it deposits only $22 billion in the highway account of the Highway Trust Fund, where it can be used to make our roads and bridges safer and more efficient. …

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