Whale Watching Editorial: The California Gas Tax
At the end of March, California’s governor announced a budget plan aimed at fixing the state’s roads. And you should notice because winds political and otherwise tend to blow eastward from California.
Anything that improves the roads should be welcome, and widely varying statistics point out how much bad roads cost in vehicle repairs and tires. However, any discussion of government maintenance inefficiency aside, many states—including California—are trying to fund it the wrong way.
California already ranks in the top 10 states for fuel taxes (excise, federal excise, sales, and the cap-and-trade “fee” that’s really a tax) and while most of its roads don’t see northern plains freezes or Rust Belt salting, they do tend to get washed or knocked off the map frequently. So to fund repairs, the governor proposed raising the excise tax on gasoline and diesel, the sales tax on fuels, the vehicle registration fee, and adding a hybrid/electric annual fee of $100. To further muddy it, some rates would rise with inflation and the money would go to improving infrastructure and improving mass transit.
This demonstrates Sacramento’s disdain for petroleum-powered cars and standing up to big industry. The annual fee for a hybrid/electric is less than the state gas excise tax for a 30-mpg car at 15,000 miles a year, yet we all know hybrid electrics weigh more and generate more pavement-wrinkling, off-idle torque than straight gasoline cars. But this is nothing compared to the real damage.
Every assessment I read says weight is the primary cause of road wear, ahead of all other reasons cited combined. According to a 2012 Ohio State study, “When discussing road wear cars don’t matter: road damage is effectively caused by trucks.” And while CAFE standards that encourage larger vehicles, tax rules favoring higher GVWR, marketing, safety and emission requirements have made Truck Trend trucks heavier, they’re not the ones we’re speaking about.
Road damage is caused by force exerted from vehicle axles and is related to the fourth power relative vehicle load: an 80,000-pound five-axle truck delivers the same road wear as thousands of midsize sedans, and if it’s overweight by 10,000 pounds, there’s a greater than 40 percent increase in road wear. If your old pickup carried 1,500 pounds on the rear axle and your new one carries 3,000, that axle’s impact has gone up 16 times, but it’s still miniscule compared to a commercial truck.
Adding truck axles is the easiest way to lower road wear: That Ohio State study noted going from 2 to 4 singles axles nets a factor-of-10 road life increase, from two singles to two tandems quadruples life and from two single to four tandem is a factor-of-33 gain. The disconnect is in most places the least number of axles is desirable because of registration and licensing rules and lower tolls for fewer axles and/or wheels.
The trucking industry has lobbied for—and received approval at some state levels—six-axle trucks at 97,000 pounds, which would bring ground-loading closer to original Interstate system design intent and less wear, but still too heavy for many of the roads connected to those Interstates. It would also improve efficiency, but adding axles also adds upfront and ongoing costs.
Multiple studies suggested 20 to 24 percent of trucks are overloaded, and greater enforcement by Sacramento would doubly benefit with less road damage and more revenue. But Sacramento prefers to stick it to the individual where resistance is less, even though cars and pickups aren’t responsible for most road wear—if you accept that 3,000 cars exact the same road wear as one truck, California’s automobile population does the same damage as 8,200 trucks, 0.15 percent of the state’s truck population. Using California’s Department of Motor Vehicles 2015 data for number of vehicles and average registration/license/weight fees paid, automobiles generated $3.65 billion while trucks contributed less than half that. Gasoline excise tax remains higher than diesel (sales tax currently inverse), and according to the state’s tax board, in 2016 California had 15.5 billion gallons of taxable gasoline sales and 3.0 billion taxable diesel gallons, so who’s really paying for road wear caused by trucks?
Your legislators may have different opinions on balancing truck road damage with economic benefits, but you might consider letting them know it could be more sensible to link tolls to weight or give lower-weight-per-axle a break to better avoid breaking the roads.