Hybrids & Electric Cars May Spell Doom For America's Roads

Follow Richard

Traffic Jam

Traffic Jam

Yesterday, we discussed the problem of America's crumbling roads and bridges. Taxes on gasoline are meant to keep that stuff up to snuff, but the costs of maintenance and upgrades are outpacing revenue. The reason? The federal gas tax hasn't risen since 1993.

The Wall Street Journal recently examined several ways to boost funding for America's infrastructure, and we briefly discussed the pros and cons of each. But what neither we nor the WSJ explored in depth was the effect of hybrid and electric vehicles on the gas tax -- and, ultimately, road maintenance.

Here's the problem: the distance that we drive each year has been growing. Last year, Americans traveled roughly 3 trillion miles, or about 16,000 round-trip drives to the sun.

An increasing number of the cars on our roads are fuel-efficient hybrids, and fully electric vehicles will soon become commonplace, too. Even conventional vehicles will see fuel economy rise dramatically over the next 13 years. Even if the number of cars on U.S. roads continues to climb (which isn't a sure bet), fuel consumption may not ramp up at the same pace.

So, if gas consumption stagnates -- or worse, falls -- gas-tax revenue does, too. Which means that our highways and byways might soon be disintegrating exponentially faster than they are today.


We could play the role of Doubting Thomas, insisting that conventional gas and diesel vehicles will remain dominant for the forseeable future. If that's the case, some kind of restructured gas tax, like one pegged to the inflation rate, might buy us a bit of time.

But whether it happens in 18 years or 80, one day, motorists' consumption of fossil fuels will decrease and eventually dry up.

What the heck do we do then?

Assuming that sci-fi wonders like plasma-powered cars are still centuries away and that room-temperature superconductors are on the same schedule, we need to deal with the fact that we'll be moving around in wheeled vehicles -- autonomous vehicles, perhaps, but wheeled vehicles all the same.

If that's the case, there are at least two ways to address the problem of wear and tear on our roads:

1. Charge drivers (and passengers, too) for the miles they travel. This would be much like today's system of toll roads -- or perhaps, more like train ticketing systems. While this plan seems fair, it would require a great deal of government oversight, including monitoring of every individual's movement. Privacy advocates would likely pitch a fit, much as they do today.

2. Tax cars, not fuel. This puts the burden on car owners, which admittedly seems fair. The downside is that it's technically a tax increase, which is likely to be politically unpopular (though perhaps not as unpopular as option #1). 

Surely there are other ways to fund maintenance of America's infrastructure. Do you have any out-of-the-box suggestions? Feel free to share them in the comments below.


Follow GreenCarReports on Facebook and Twitter.

Follow Us

Comments (22)
  1. Well, the headline is terribly misleading, if not downright inflammatory, on a Green Car site.

    The fact is that hybrid and electric vehicles account for about 3% of vehicle sales (and less if you are looking at all the cars on the road), or a rounding error in the calc. And yet, we have a huge deficit in the highway funding. So it is clear that the problem is not hybrid and electric cars.

    The problem is simply a taxing method that is a rated per gallon not per dollar spent and hence has not kept up with inflation. Fixed the tax formula and fix the problem.

    As for EVs, when they reach 2% of sales, tax them per mile per pound of vehicle weight based on annual safety inspection records. The states already have this data.

  2. "monster" jacked up Pickups and SUVs should pick an additional premium for it...

  3. There may be a flaw in my plan. Plug-in hybrids.

    Hmmm, maybe plug-in vehicles need an EV electric mile odometer for tax purposes.

  4. Convert most highways and freeways to toll roads with the existing toll infrastructure. Certainly not fool proof, since there's a significant portion of toll road users who don't pay the fee that's mailed to them. Still existing infrastructure and better than adding taxes from a political standpoint.

  5. Well, the problem is that converting the roads to toll roads aren't really fair since lot of the cost of the roads are already spent and paid for with the people who already paid taxes on it.

    Toll roads revenues are often abused to use on other thing. No different than the current gas tax.

  6. Personally, I would go the other direction. Fix the road tax problem (by what ever means) and eliminate tolls completely. (Though I will admit they do serve a deterrent function in some areas like travel in to Boston.) The idea that there are tolls on any interstate I find completely ridiculous. This is a terrible way to pay of the roads.

  7. I agree with John Briggs on the title being extreme misleading. EV/Hybrid critics have bene repeating the complain that EVs and Hybrid don't sell enough to make a difference. Yet, when it comes down to "gas tax", then they make all the differences?

    Well, the tax system was designed in the last century for the cars from the last century. If we are ready for the next generation of technology, then we should adopt accordingly (just like internet impact on commerce).

    I think a combination of taxing on miles driven and vehicle weight is the correct way to approach this. Different vehicles will put different kind of wear and tear on the road. So, taxing by weight should be one factor. Then taxing by miles should be the other factor.

  8. Instead of asking for more "gasoline tax", we should ask whether we are spending the money efficiently already as it is.
    Golden Gate Bridge in SF bay area is a great example how they are spending the money wrong. The bridge has been paid for long time ago. Yet. The bridge toll are being diverted to pay for money losing operation of the Ferry and Buses system, plus the 6 figure salary of the commission staff. The bridge retrofitting and maintainence only cost a fraction of the revenue that bridge toll brings in...
    Also, there are lots of "shortsight" projects in our highway construction and maintainence. "Get it done for now" for less instead of "get it done right for decades" for a little more has been the motto of most of our hwy system.
    Another issue is that major interstates have been used by local communities as their daily commuting roadway so the local and state government have been "leveraging" the national resources for local uses...

  9. What a poorly written title. I agree!

    Simple fix. Raise the gas tax. That will get things back on track. It obviously needs to be adjusted as time goes on. I would guess that raw materials cost more than they did in 1993. Alot more. Probably more than the price of gas has risen (it actually has not risen much over that time period).

    Raise the gas tax to cover these extra costs and that will take care of most of the problem. Or add an extra fee on vehicle purchases to increase that revenue. Charge by the ton (heavier cars wear out the roads faster).

  10. I agree with you!

    Not only does raising the gas tax help fund road maintenance, it's a far better way to encourage the switch to fuel efficient cars giving money to the green company the governments guesses will be a success. That approach is dumb. Not only is it hard to pick, but choosing one decreases the chance of other succeeding because no private funder wants to back a company that competes with a government backed company.

  11. A per mile charge really seems to be the better system. The issue is how to implement it. In states that have regular inspections of the vehicle mileage driven could easily be checked.

    Also a higher rate should be charged for heavier vehicles.

  12. I'm okay with a charge per mile system as long as heavier/less efficient vehicles get charged more than more efficient vehicles.

  13. This has been addressed before. The most proposed solution is to incorporate road tax with license renewal. Gas tax is a good approach because bigger heavier vehicles use more gas and cause more wear & tear on highways. Also more miles equals more tax. To maintain the same model, the license renewal would incorporate a declaration of vehicle miles and factored with vehicle weight.

  14. Much of the needed road repairs are caused by heavy or even overweight vehicles. Electrics and hybrids are typically the lightest vehicles on the road, causing negligable damage. (City streets are funded by property taxes) Since the heavy vehicles are generally powered by diesel fuel, the taxes should be increased on this type of fuel to compensate for the damage they cause. Why should eco folks subsidize the damaging heavy haulers?

  15. I don't believe electric cars are light compared to other cars. Their batteries are very heavy.

  16. Our roads and Freeways are not maintained now in California so the < 3% hybrids are not an issue. We have big ruts. seams from relocated lanes, and big potholes on Freeways 101, 680, 580, etc in SF bay area. I don't see any of this problem near the state capitol or Los Angeles. Maybe this more of a problem with our state government's priorities.
    Its is also very apparent that truck lanes are in the poorest condition due to the pounding from the trucks, a prime example Altamont pass highway 580.

  17. Carbon tax.

  18. A carbon tax is need. I like the idea put forth by Dr. James Hanson. But the carbon tax would be different that the money for the roads.

  19. A coal tax?

    Current gas taxes are a mix of federal, state & local fees (which are virtual hidden in gallons). Even a % of federial $ goes to state funds. Current system is an outdated one from 1940's. This is an interesting question, particularly with regards to interstate commerce & road taxes!

    Toll systems tend to penalize travelers with higher fees due to a number of different systems. Any metered system is sure to be controversial, as it could open concerns of privacy (tracking speed & recording a drivers location).

    Any new system needs to encompass all levels from interstate to local; private & commercial vehicles. One positive of the current system of taxes; it doesn't require much thinking to go anywhere.

  20. How about lowering the obscene cost of road maintenance, by contracting it out. In our state, if you drive by a construction site, only one in five people will be working. If the maintenance was run by private sector coontractors, that wouldn't be happening.

  21. A decaying infrastructure is merely one of the symptoms of an empire in decline. Why does no one ask where that extra 50 million people since the 1980s came from and how their numbers have impacted the US. Has the additional tax base covered their impact on our national infrastructure? We can come up with all of the taxing schemes we want, but it would be nice if there were some terms to the agreement instead of just getting fleeced.

  22. Here's the real deal on this issue.

    Road damage scales by the fourth power of a vehicle's axle loading. That's a huge, gargantuan factor.

    As a result, the road wear caused by high-mileage vehicles of all types is negligible compared to the road damage caused by heavy trucks.

    He Ave trucks need to pick up more of their share of road maintenance costs. That's the real issue - not electric vehicles!

    More details here:

Commenting is closed for old articles.

Get FREE Dealer Quotes

From dealers near you

Find Green Cars


© 2015 Green Car Reports. All Rights Reserved. Green Car Reports is published by High Gear Media. Send us feedback. Stock photography by izmo, Inc.