Highway User Fees:

Updated Data Needed to Determine Whether All Users Pay Their Fair Share

RCED-94-181: Published: Jun 7, 1994. Publicly Released: Jun 10, 1994.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed whether highway user fees should be based on weight and distance travelled, focusing on the: (1) rationale for and arguments against assessing wear-based user fees; (2) recent state experiences in assessing wear-based fees; and (3) potential approaches that could be used to overcome the obstacles to implementing such fees.

GAO found that: (1) proponents of wear-based fees contend that such fees would more accurately charge heavy trucks for the wear they cause and, in the long run, provide truck operators with an incentive to reduce pavement wear; (2) opponents of wear-based fees argue that they are unnecessary, costly to administer and enforce, and easy to evade; (3) since 1989, 5 states have rescinded their wear-based fees due to administrative costs, evasion, and legal challenges; (4) 6 states continue to use wear-based fees, emphasizing that they increase equity and efficiency; (5) high administrative costs and evasion rates can be minimized with the use of efficient new highway system technologies; and (6) Federal Highway Administration (FHwA) officials emphasize that the implementation of a national weight-distance user fee is currently feasible and would allow greater precision in charging trucks on a weight-per-axle basis.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The FHwA user fee report concluded that additional federal action would not necessarily improve economic efficiency, and that inequities that still exist could be best addressed at the state level.

    Matter: If the results of the FHwA study indicate that certain highway users underpay their share of highway costs, Congress should consider examining policy options, including a national weight-distance user fee, that would increase equity and promote a more efficient use of the nation's highways.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FHwA concurred with the recommendation and hired a contractor to conduct a cost allocation study. DOT released the report late in 1997. The report concluded that federal user fees are more equitable than they were in the early 1980s, and that it is not clear that any change at the federal level would improve economic efficiency. FHwA plans to update its study periodically.

    Recommendation: To determine whether all highway users are paying their fair share of federal highway costs and to ensure that FHwA and Congress have up-to-date information when making future decisions affecting federal highway user fees, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FHwA, to conduct a formal cost allocation study, with appropriate input from the affected parties. In conducting this study, the Administrator should utilize, to the extent possible, the data currently being developed by the Strategic Highway Research Program on the relationship between axle loads and pavement damage.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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