Which costs more for drivers – a fuel tax or a road user charge?
November 10, 2015
• The answer: Yes
• “It has been difficult to convince voters to increase that tax”
With government agencies trying to figure out how to pay for building and repairing highways as gas taxes plateau because of more fuel-efficient cars, they are considering various means to raise revenue.
Two of those are a vehicle fuel tax and a road user charge. But which one will cost more per household?
Researchers at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University conducted a comparative analysis. Their peer-reviewed report, Household Income and Vehicle Fuel Economy in California, found that the differences are minimal. Principal investigator was Christopher Ferrell, working with David Reinke.
“The current per-gallon fuel tax is no longer keeping up with highway funding needs because vehicles can travel much farther on a single gallon of fuel,” says Mr. Ferrell. “But it has been difficult to convince voters to increase that tax. If revenue were based on a fee per mile traveled, it could be more realistic. But would it be a disadvantage to particular income groups or to those who live in rural areas? That was the basis of our study.”
Daily household fuel consumption and vehicle miles traveled both appear to increase with increasing household income, the study notes. And urban and rural households show roughly the same amount of fuel consumption and VMT.
Although the researchers found some slight differences in estimated costs over different income groups and rural vs. urban households, they found no statistically significant difference among income groups between a vehicle fuel tax and a road user charge.
The results are based on sample data and are therefore subject to sampling errors in the data, the report says. Fuel efficiency for vehicles of the same make, model, model year, and engine type will differ because of several differences, including maintenance, driving cycles, vehicle loads, and fuel type.
“It is important to note that other aspects to these alternatives should be examined to provide complete information for decision makers,” says Mr. Ferrell. “For example, a fuel tax is an across-the-board tax that applies equally to all vehicles, regardless of size or weight. On the other hand, a road user charge could be based on vehicle class, which would more fairly assess different vehicle classes for the actual wear and tear they impose on the road system.”