The Hidden Trucking Industry Subsidy

Freight trucks cause 99% of wear-and-tear on US roads, but only pay for 35% of the maintenance. This $60B subsidy causes extra congestion and pollution, and taxpayers pay the bill.

It seems obvious that the heavier the vehicle, the more damage it does to roads over time. A 40,000 pound big rig probably does a bit more damage than your average 3500 pound consumer vehicle, right? It turns out that vehicle road damage doesn’t rise linearly with weight. Road damage rises with the fourth power of weight, and this means that a 40,000 pound truck does roughly 10,000 times more damage to roadways than the average car [1]!

In other words, one fully loaded 18-wheeler does the same damage to a road as 9600 cars. According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the trucking industry represents 11% of all vehicles on the road in the US, while paying 35% of all highway taxes. But if trucks represent 11% of vehicles, their heavy loads cause them to do 99% of all road damage! [2] The trucking industry paid $35 Billion in highway taxes in 2005, according to the ATA. Since most of the $100 Billion in highway taxes paid goes to maintenance (and US infrastructure maintenance is far behind), this implies that the trucking industry receives a $60 Billion annual subsidy from other drivers.

What are the negative effects of this subsidy? Since the trucking industry doesn’t pay the true cost of its road usage, it benefits relative to rail and other forms of transport. Freight rail lines are privately owned and maintained in the US, so they don’t receive a similar subsidy. As a result, more truck traffic ends up on highways than the market would dictate, leaving the taxpayers poorer, the air dirtier, and the roads more congested.

[1] Here’s some information on US pavement equations, including the statement of the fourth power law. Here’s another statement of the same, which also shows that on weaker surfaces, damage rises with the 6th power of the load.

[2] In order to calculate the damage done by trucks versus other vehicles, let’s assume that a fully loaded truck does the same damage to the roadway as 9600 cars, as mentioned above. In that case, then 11%, or 0.11 * 9600 = 1056. This is a measure of total damage done by truck traffic. Meanwhile, car traffic does 89% * 1 or 0.89 in damage. So the total damage is 1056 + 0.89 or 1056.89, of which 1056, or 99.9%, is done by trucks.

Perhaps half of all trucks are actually traveling empty. If an empty truck weighs 20,000 pounds, then it puts 4000 pounds onto each of its five axles, versus 2000 pounds on each axle for a car. The truck will do 2^4 more damage than the car, or 16 times more damage. So let’s add the totals back up: 5.5% * 9600 + 5.5% * 16 = 529. 529 / 529.89 = 99%. In fact, even if all big rigs in the US traveled empty, they would still do two-thirds of all damage to US roads!

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18 Comments »

  1. Ajit said

    AMAZING…!!!

  2. Ajit said

    AMAZING…!!!

    I really dint know that trucks can influence economics in such a huge way..!!!

  3. Viga said

    Interesting.

    Did you take pounds per inch into account when coming to this conclusion? Large rucks often have 18 wheels or more, generally all axles except the steer axle have dual wheels, and large truck tires are larger and wider than car tires, so they generally apply less pressure to the road surface per inch than cars do.

    I’m not up on the numbers, but I do recall reading a study somewhere that showed that many cars actually do more damage than trucks. Of course, that would have to be excepting anywhere trucks make lots of tight turns. This is along the lines of the truth that a woman wearing high-heeled shoes does more damage to a sidewalk than an elephant.

    Since your source refers only to “equivalent single axle loads” your calculation appears to be flawed. You are not looking at a 3,500lb car versus a 40,000lb truck (many of which weigh MUCH less than that fully loaded because things like Girl Scout Cookies and toilet paper just don’t weigh that much). Rather, you are looking at a 3,500lb car versus two axles of a semi-truck. The heaviest legal (non-permited) weight for one axle is 18,000lbs. This, combined with tire size, changes the equation drastically.

    I don’t have tires handy to measure, but we can make some assumptions to arrive at a close guess, using a fully loaded 80,000lb and a 3,500lb car, with all tires at proper inflation levels.

    3500/4=875 pounds per corner. The average car tire is 7 inches wide, and lays 5 inches of tread on the ground. This gives the car a contact patch of 35 square inches.

    The average truck tire is 11 inches wide, lays 8 inches of tread on the ground, fully loaded, and has two tires per axle. This gives the large truck a contact patch of 176 square inches. 80,000/18=4,444.

    875/35=25 pounds per square inch for the car.
    4444/176=25.25 for the truck.

    Now, contact patches vary wildly, and depend on many variables; tire pressure, load weight, tire width, and so forth, but this still shows that the difference is not nearly as great as it might appear at the outset.

    Take into account that many loaded trucks are not loaded to their full weight capacity, and the situation changes once again.

    Additionally, I’m also wondering which road-use tax figures you’ve included in your calculations. Are IFTA taxes paid to individual states included? What about 2290 Heavy Vehicle Highway Use Tax? Looking at the link to your source for that number, those items were not included in this calculation. Of course, we would also have to account for state fuel taxes paid by car drivers. This is a cumbersome calculation, but it is not accurate to only account for Federal per-gallon fuel tax as measure of who pays more to maintain the highways.

    When all is said and done, trucks pay much more in overall raod use taxes than you have calculated, and cause far less damage.

    Regardless of all the above, additional taxes on trucks to correct some (either real or nonexistent) error in the taxing structure would simply result in an increase in freight rates, which would pass directly through to the consumer as an increase in consumer costs.

    The trucking industry is beleaguered with problems that lead to huge inefficiencies, the burdens of which are born by both consumers and truck drivers. These problems must be addressed, but it is important to start looking in the right places, first.

    • Viga,

      Thanks for the well-reasoned comment. Unfortunately, the damage that heavy loads do to pavement is apparently not related to pressure (force / area), but to the total load that a section of pavement can support. At least that’s my understanding of the fourth power law and Equivalent Single Axle Loads – I’m not a civil engineer.

      The sources that I referenced specifically call out this difference:

      http://pavementinteractive.org/index.php?title=ESAL

      “Heavy trucks and buses are responsible for a majority of pavement damage. Considering that a typical automobile weighs between 2,000 and 7,000 lbs (curb weight), even a fully loaded large passenger van will only generate about 0.003 ESALs while a fully loaded tractor-semi trailer can generate up to about 3 ESALs (depending upon pavement type, structure and terminal serviceability).”

      Even a truck weighing 40,000 lbs including its load puts 8000 lbs on each axle, versus 2000 for a typical car. As I calculated in footnote 2 of my original post, even in this situation a truck would do significantly more damage than a car.

      Regarding your final point, that taxes on the trucking industry would be passed on to consumers – that’s exactly right. By subsidising trucking with free (or cheaper) roads, we obscure the true cost of consumer goods. If the trucking industry instead paid more taxes to repair roads, this would result in more goods shipped by more efficient means – rail and ship. I’m all for removing a subsidy and using the proceeds to lower other taxes when possible.

    • LINDA said

      i do not believe that trucks do that much damage to the highways
      if roads were built properly and the constructions companys did not cut holes and seems in roads supposedly to allow for expansion when all these seems do is allow for water and ice to tear roads up
      then our roads would be in 100 percent better shape
      2 years ago Michigan has some of the bese roads in country then came the foot wide or more holes and filled with cheap concrete and made like speed bumps and twice as many in right lane where trucks are forced to run now they are some of the worst roads
      all the road damage is just to create a need for more money to be spent even the expansion seems are twice as wide and twice as many in truck lanes i wish someone would explain this to all of us

      • LINDA said

        why dont the highway dept or DOT have someone to inspect the construction of all highways and to see that it is done properly even bridges and roadways do not match up any more
        ski jumps at the beginning and end of bridges just cause damage every time a truck or car crosses them and has to bounce or jump across them

        why

  4. Viga, I corrected my calculation to correctly take into account axle load instead of total vehicle weight. Thanks for noting the error. The modified calculation still shows that even empty trucks do more damage to the roads than cars.

    • Trucker Joe said

      You know this is amazing the crap that comes from people who drive cars
      1) You whine about how much damage we truckers do to the roads.
      2) you actually think we dont pay enough tax to fix the roads.
      3) its the Government that is responsible for distributing the money and
      fixing the road ways. And my last question is would you still be complaining
      if all trucker went on strike. If that happened you would lose everything such
      as> no more groceries,food,drink,TP and such. No More fuel for your cars.
      the whole world would come to a Hault! I wonder then would you still care so much about the roads or about how your going to go on living or supporting your self or your families. If You Can come up with a better solution the trucks hauling every thing then YOU SHOULD RUN FOR OFFICE AND TAKE YOUR IDEA TO CONGRESS!!!

      • Joe,

        I guess you’re proud to be on welfare aren’t you!! When your truck does more damage to the roads than you pay in taxes, then you’re not paying your fair share, and that’s a kind of welfare.

        I work in a non-subsidized field, getting no money from the government. And I prefer it that way. My point is that the trucking industry should simply pay its fair share. If you damage the roads, you should pay for it.

        I would be happy to pay more for my goods to be shipped – trucking companies would simply pass the costs on to customers. That would be the right solution to the problem. Charge truckers more for road use, and have them pass along the cost. If more goods start moving by train (or barge or plane) as a result, that’s fair competition.

      • LINDA said

        Do you realize how much damage to roads and cars and trucks are done just because of the way auto drivers drive. no one obeys traffic laws and the police do nothing. if the trucks were allowed to drive without haveing to stop suddenly each and ever time some car pulls out in front of us because they cannot touch their brakes at an entrance ramp where BY THE WAY ALL VEHICLES ARE SUPPOSED TO YIELD COMING ON TO A ROADWAY NOT JUST AT A YIELD SIGN BUT ANY TIME TRAFFIC IS THEIR ALREADY ON THE ROADWAY BUT THEY PULL OUT FORCING EVERYONE NOT JUST THE BIG TRUCKS TO COME TO A COMPLETE STOP JUST FOR THEIR STUPIDITY
        AD WE DONT HAVE POLICE OFFICERS ANY MORE THEY ARE WORTHLESS OUT HERE UNTIL AFTER AN ACCIDENT AND SOMEONE IS HURT OR WORSE KILLED THEN THEY JUST ARE GLORIFIED ACCIDENT INVESTIGATORS

  5. LINDA said

    IF THE POLICE OFFICERS WOULD JUST MAKE ALL VEHICLES ESPECIALLY THE FOUR WHEELERS OBEY THE LAWS YIELD LAWS AND REPLACE YIELD SIGNS LIKE FEDERAL LAWS SAYS THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO DO EACH AND EVERY CITY OUT HERE WOULD BE RICH AND A LOT LESS ACCIDENTS WOULD HAPPEN ON ALL HIGHWAYS
    70% OF ALL ACCIDENTS ARE DUE TO STUPIDITY OF AUTOMOBILE DRIVERS NOT TRUCKS

  6. Larry said

    Not the dumbest thing I have ever heard… but it is the dumbest thing I’ve heard in the last seven years… research, dude. do better research

    • Larry, thanks for adding to the conversation with your research!

      As you can see above, I researched my article thoroughly, and you’ve done nothing to refute my argument – and it’s not even my argument, it’s the argument of Civil Engineering professors and researchers in the field. Big vehicles (which on the interstate are predominantly trucks) do all the damage to roads. They should pay for that damage. Simple.

      • Megan said

        My husband is an owner/operator. I see the paperwork and write the checks to the irs. We pay federal,state,and local taxes. We pay tax at the pump as well as whats called a fuel charge back tax every quarter(which is supposed to be for the roads) we pay ifta, form 2290, $1600 a year for a license plate for truck alone. Is that enough? Did any of you “research” turn up that bit of info?

  7. kevin said

    I’m glad you clarify “Attempts” to dissect. You really haven’t a clue to what you are talking about.
    It really would be a waste of time trying to explain this to you, so I won’t waste my time trying.

  8. Clean air said

    Yes you are right, trucks do wear road pavements 9600 times than one car.

    It is plain to see if you travel down any road that prohibits heavy trucks, the pavement holds up for many years, but drive down a truck route, and the average surface span of the average chip road surface on those truck routes is wearing badly in less than a couple of years..

    Apparently some people dont think weight and tyre surface area has any extra effect on roads?

    Try that ideology on a frozen lake surface sometime,

    Guess which vehicle, be it a truck or car breaks through the surface of the ice?

    Go ask the ice road truckers in Alaska.

  9. Bob said

    A few yrs late, but legal gross weight in most states is 80,000 lbs.

  10. […] While the goal to shift vehicles to off-peak hours as a way to reduce congestion has been proven successful in the area, around the country and internationally, with research even showing that non-work travel constitutes up to 56 percent of trips during the a.m. peak travel period and 69 percent of trips during the p.m. peak, the author’s proposed traffic solution misses the mark. The problem here is twofold: First, according the NYSTA’s own consultants, trucks already are not paying their fair share. According to one report, road damage caused by a single 18-wheeler is equivalent to that of 9,600 cars, yet trucks pay “only five times the rate of the average passenger vehicle,” according to NYSTA Executive Director Tom Madison. By some calculations, trucks cause up to 99 percent of all road damage. […]

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