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!

33 thoughts on “The Hidden Trucking Industry Subsidy

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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

      1. 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

  2. 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.

    1. 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!!!

      1. 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.

      2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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

    1. 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.

      1. 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?

  5. 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.

    1. Other people read blogs too, so your explanation (if you have a valid one) would be worth writing if you wish to influence the opinions of other readers who happen upon this post.

  6. 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.

  7. Ship by rail. Anything that needs to go over, say, 250 miles, should have to go by rail. It’s cheaper (100 tractor-trailers and drivers vs 100 railroad cars, 1-2 engines and 2-3 railroad employees), significantly reduces road repair damage, reduces traffic congestion, and gets discourteous truckers (5 minutes to pass another truck, 3 trucks wide going the same speed in the 3-lanes of an interstate, pull out right in front of you when you’re about to pass them and there’s no one behind you) off the road when they are getting paid to be on the road but the rest us are not only paying to drive on the road but are actually subsidizing them and the trucking industry.

  8. I’d like to ask that if you don’t like big trucks on the roads, why not just boycott their products. Just don’t use any gasoline or diesel, don’t buy any foods from the grocery stores, don’t buy anything from Wal-Mart or any other chain store. Grow & raise All your own food or trade or barter locally, for locally grown or raised or made items. You wouldn’t be able to use cash or coins, because they are transported on trucks. You’d have to walk, or bicycle or ride a horse everywhere. You couldn’t watch cable or dish, because those companies use big trucks. No cell phones or landline phones, those companies transport using big trucks. I’d probably suggest joining the Amish.

    1. Weird, for a century only trains were available for transporting these goods and somehow commerce survived. Put the majority of the freight back on the tracks and only use the heavy trucks for delivery from the train depot.

  9. It’s amazing how people will talk about things they know absolutely nothing about. (Forgive my punctuation, i dont us it well)
    Truck pay for 90% of road repair, here’s how.
    The average car gets 21mpg and only pays tax at the pump. average truck gets 6.5mpg (if your lucky) pays the same tax at the pump, plus pay per mile to use that fuel. each state has its own rate they steal from the drive. comes out to be about $1,500 to $2,500 a year if you run the lower 48 states. on top of that the fed gets $250 out every truck every quarter of the year. I paid over $56,000 on fuel last year. About $5321 of that was tax at the pump, add another 1,500 to 2500 for the sate and another 1,000 for the fed. plus tolls, which 15 to 20 times more than a car’s. What did you pay last year in fuel tax?

    1. You paid a 60 times as much in gas tax as me, but you drove 20 times as many miles, so your truck is paying 3 times as much per vehicle mile but causing 9600 times as much damage. I think we can say we know what we are talking about. in this post here. Sorry that it doesn’t match your worldview, but that does not mean it is ignorance.

  10. I would like to know where your got the tax number from. Is that Highway use tax (2290) is that federal fuel tax. Is that excise tax on Trucks and Tires. State fuel taxes. Permits and Mileage taxes in various states.

  11. What you really need to understand is that you really flawed the way you utilized the research you presented. The calculations and figures that you used in a per vehicle basis are based on trucks that EXCEED the national 80,000 pound threshold and is really pertaining to over-weight permits. States and the Federal Government use a “bridge” formula to design and structure highways using the 80,000 pound threshold, therefore, trucks using the highway that fit the normal criteria (80,000 lbs max) like the VAST majority do, do not inherently cause more damage than a car. Viga did a good job of describing how the bridge formula works in his (or her) first post.

  12. AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) has been studying this for a long time (Eisenhower Administration) and a basic rule of thumb is that every passenger vehicle imparts approximately 1/10,000 the load or wear and tear on a road as a 80,000 lb semi truck. When comparing a prius and escalade, there is no real difference between them when they stack up against a semi.

    Additionally, roads are designed with trucks in mind, no passenger vehicles since the amount of wear and tear that the passenger vehicles impart is so insignificant in comparison. This goes for residential streets too as common, mundane things need to be accounted for. Take the concrete truck that builds homes in a neighborhood or trash trucks for instance, all streets are assumed to see some heavy truck traffic.

    Now when you consider that there is very little difference in the amount of impact on a street imparted by a bicycle and a passenger vehicle compared to a semi truck, you need to keep in mind that the semis deliver food and other items that we all likely use in equal proportion. So while it may feel good to ride a bicycle and think that you’re impacting the roadways and their maintenance needs less, you’re probably are not since that same garbage truck that picked up your trash also picks up your neighbors trash and he is going to have to make 10,000 passes up and down the road to equal one pass of weekly trash pickup.

  13. People, do not let this post fool you, trucks pay way more for roads than the government let’s you know. NY tolls. Gw bridge alone costs all trucks $115.00 to cross it along with all the other bridges in the NYC area. PA turnpike can cost trucks close to $300.00 per trip per Truck each way. We pay a high fuel tax, along with permit fees to run the states. Oh and by the way. If I purchase fuel in Arizona I still have to pay fuel tax for all states I run in.

  14. fee.org Foundation for Economic Education, The Distorting Effects of Transportation Subsidis by Kevin A. Carson

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