How to Get Trucks to Pay their Fair Share of Road Maintenance

Hampton Roads weigh station. Photo credit:

Hampton Roads weigh station. Photo credit:

by James A. Bacon

Once we embrace the logic of basing road-maintenance expenditures on Return on Investment analysis, as I discussed yesterday, we should address a related matter: the fact that some vehicles cause far more damage to roads than others. In an equitable and economically efficient world, vehicles would pay for damage in proportion to which they cause it. As a practical matter, that would mean getting trucks to pay a greater share of taxes than they do now.

The wear and tear on a road caused by a vehicle increases geometrically in proportion to the vehicle’s weight per axle. Thus, virtually all pavement damage is caused by trucks and buses, contend Clifford Winston and Fred Mannering in a recent article in the Economics of Transportation journal. The rear axle of a typical 13-ton trailer causes more than 1,000 times the damage of a car. (Governing magazine quotes road planners as saying that a heavy truck causes close to 10,000 times the damage of a car.) Heavy trucks likewise cause disproportionate stress to bridges.

Trucks in Virginia, like other states, are taxed far more heavily than cars. But they still are under-taxed in proportion to the damage they cause and the maintenance liabilities they generate. Getting trucks to pay their fair share is difficult because an influential trucking lobby blocks any redistribution of the tax load. But there may be a way to package tax reform to make it palatable to the trucking industry: by making it a win-win proposition.

States do a couple of things that truckers don’t like: (1) they impose weight caps on trucks and tractor-trailers, which limits how much they cargo they can carry, and (2) they require trucks on highways to stop and get weighed, which costs them time.

But what if…. What if Virginia required trucks to pay 100% of the road damage they cause while (1) eliminating weight caps and (2) no longer requiring them to stop at weighing stations, measuring them instead with high-speed “weigh in motion” technologies as they travel down the highway? The first measure would provide trucks more flexibility. They could increase weights (and pay a proportionately higher charge) when the cargo justified it. They could deploy trucks that spread the weight over more axles. They could adjust their routes to minimize travel over bridges for which they incurred high charges. The second measure would save them time in a situation where time was money.

One would think it should be possible to build a coalition of interests — railroads, shippers, motorists — to counter the trucking industry’s lobbying clout. Then make the tax increase easier to swallow by providing tangible inducements such as weigh in motion. It should be possible to budge this powerful lobby into going along.

Update: A correspondent reminds me that the General Assembly tackled the issue of overweight trucks in the 2012 session. It may be settled politically in the sense that the legislature has no intention of returning to it any time soon, but the problem has not been solved. A December 2011 study that laid out a new fee schedule for overweight loads estimated that it would raise an extra $4.7 million a year — a drop in the bucket.

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24 responses to “How to Get Trucks to Pay their Fair Share of Road Maintenance

  1. Trucks do pay more in tolls though.

  2. trucks don’t pay taxes. people who receive deliveries by trucks – pay for the embedded delivery costs including road taxes and penalties.

    it’s the cruel truth.. businesses do not print money – they collect it from customers.

    • But subsidizing trucks provides incentives for companies to ship via road vs rail or over water. It also penalizes products made further from the markets where the products are sold.

  3. But trucks can stay within weight limits and pay less. It’s the overweight trucks with and without permits that are causing excess damage to roads and bridges. There are a few industries, including coal and timber, cause much of the damage. If I buy coal or electricity from coal, should I bear the costs or someone else?

    • TMT – how do you know which things that benefit you are or are not causing the damage?

      Are you assuming that none of the things you use – cause damage?

      in terms of truck weights.. I seriously don’t how much of a problem we have with overweight vehicles because there appear to be a lot of weigh stations and evading them would be not easy and probably counter-productive to timely deliveries.

      is there definitive evidence of truck damage or is it more of a belief ?

      It would seem to be a bit of a trade-0ff between the costs of enforcement .. weight stations and roving weigh stations and building roads tougher – and we’re largely going to own those costs no matter which path we take.

      and I’m not quite getting the connection between truck weights and electricity.

      • Larry, UVA did a big study several years ago that identified the major causes of road and bridge damage. It was posted right here on BR. It showed trucks with overweight permits causing lots of damage, but paying only minor fees with some uses exempted by statute from paying any fees.

        • thanks for reminding and the link…

          but it causes more questions than it answered in my view because it does not really precisely quantify the problem.

          are they saying that the vast majority of road damage – everywhere is caused by trucks with overweight permits that ought not have the permits or ought to pay a lot more for them?

          if the problem is largely overweight trucks that we already regulate – the fix is easy.

          if, instead, they are only PART of the problem do we even know what part and do we know what the other parts are – and how we’d fix them?

          my “issue” is we view these things in sound-bite ways with sound-bite solutions but when you actually get into it – it ain’t that simple.

          Let me give an example. What roads in Va have the highest percent of truck traffic? Now let’s look at the maintenance and repair costs for those roads compared to – say the roads that have the least percentages of truck traffic.

          what do we get?

          there is no shortage of people right here on these pages who castigate regulations that are “dumb”, “top-down”, “job killing”, pick your favorite pejorative… but keep in mind once again that we are the ones that are going to pay for it – not the trucks. They’re going to do what they are required to do, and incorporate the costs into the price to deliver.

          tell me where I have this wrong…

        • re: ” The deterioration of Virginia’s bridges, wrote Bacque, was traced mainly to the 30,000 vehicles (operating with permits) that weighed more than the loads for which the bridges were designed. Based on Allen’s calculations, a tractor-trailer weighing 116,000 pounds traveling the length of the 325-mile Interstate 81 and crossing its 58 bridges should pay $142.67 for the trip.” (from the link provided by TMT from a 2009 BR blog).

          okay so here is my question. Are these trucks “legal” or “illegal”?

          In other words, are we legally allowing them to carry loads that we know damage infrastructure?

  4. A few thoughts:

    (1) Roving weight enforcement (with portable scales) is tough and labor-intensive work for enforcement officers. Not saying it should not be done, just saying it’s not especially easy, and it requires a level and paved surface to accurately weigh the trucks.

    (2) Much of the damage to pavement is caused by heavy loads on axles or axle tandems. Requiring more axles under heavy loads (as Virginia and some other states have done, especially with dump trucks that carry sand, gravel, dirt and coal relatively short distances, generally intrastate) reduces pavement damage by spreading the load over more wheels.

    (3) There is also a bridge formula that takes into account weight, length and number of axles in a truck combination. The nice people at the Federal Highway Administration have a helpful pamphlet here with discusses it in great detail.

    (4) Trucks can (and do) vary greatly in terms of weight – they have to deadhead (run empty), and some of the cargo they transport just is not that heavy.

    • good stuff including the brochure!

      but a couple of other points.

      bridges especially longer ones can have dozens, hundreds of cars and trucks on them at the same time so they have to plan for weight loads way beyond one overweight truck – perhaps many!

      bridges do not have static weight-carrying ability – it degrades over time and the Feds and Va now have a 2 year cycle for each to be manually inspected.

      how about technology?

      for bridges.. how about strain gauges and similar that “broadcast” the movement of the bridge – to develop a “signature” of how a bridge normally “moves”.

      Such technology would not only tell us when a bridge starting moving “differently” and the cause to investigate but it would also tell us when it moved “more” than “normal” at isolated times and if we had a camera and license-plate scanner – we could capture the trucks on that bridge at the time it was showing heavier than normal weight.

      but the main overall point here is that no matter what we do – citizen/taxpayers will own the costs either directly as government expenditures for monitoring and enforcement, maintenance and repairs or via higher shipping costs if trucking companies have to build more expensive weight-spreading trucks or pay fines.. all of that gets incorporated back into the price for delivery.

      competition will weed out the trucking companies who do not operate efficiently but there’s a similar issue for govt/citizens/taxpayers – which is what is the most cost effective approach to the problem.

      punishing bad trucks has an emotional feel-good aspect to it but in the end – it all comes down to what is more cost effective…

      and this is part of a much bigger picture whether we are talking about street lights, schools, or anything the govt does – shouldn’t cost-effectiveness be the primary driver?

      Businesses are forced into doing this by their competition – if one trucking company is careless about controlling costs the other companies will deliver for less and punish them for their wanton operations.

      but in government, we have no such equivalence of seeking out, and finding the most cost-effective ways to operate. NCDOT is not going to put VDOT out of business for fiscal sloth….

      I have no idea at all how much we pay for weigh stations and monitoring and enforcement versus the quantifiable cost of truck damage. I’m not sure I’ve even seen a study or paper on the cost of overweight trucks to Va roads… it’s seems to be more of a belief than a nailed-down real number.

  5. I’m no crash expert but there are likely to be some safety issues with allowing higher weights over current standards. Trucks may need to be engineered differently to stop 80,000+ lbs. Not saying that I don’t like this concept. I’ve lived and worked in industrial forestry and the local roads were all dangerously damaged.

  6. Jim, I take issue with your underlying assumption that asphalt change is (a) occurring and (b) anthropogenic. Because that assumption is wrong, the rest of your analysis is irrelevant and, dare I say, an attempt to trick the public into unfairly burdening the trucking industry. The theory of anthropogenic asphalt change is nothing more than a hoax and any proposed “solution” would kill jobs and ruin our economy.

    I have lived in Virginia, and driven on Virginia roads, for most of my life. The roads that I drove on as a teenager are still used today – seemingly unchanged. Although some measurements of asphalt change, such as surface measurements, may indicate that there is an increasing trend in asphalt degradation, the data from such measurements has been distorted by a few dishonest scientists harboring a socialist agenda. If asphalt change is such a big problem, then how has the interstate system – a project of President Eisenhower – managed to stay in operation for almost sixty years? There is no scientific consensus that asphalt change is even occurring – I can find any number of dissenting scientists in such rigorous fields as biology, astrophysics, and chemical engineering who publicly disagree with the theory of anthropogenic asphalt change. It would be a mistake to introduce job-killing taxes just to “fix” this nonexistent problem.

    Sure, there are always small potholes and some erosion or other damage that occur, but these are naturally occurring phenomenon. The cyclical nature of Virginia weather is the main driving force of asphalt change, not humans. The expansion and contraction of asphalt, caused by the seasonal changes in temperature, is the culprit behind any asphalt change that may be occurring. And we can hardly blame the trucking industry for the weather!

    Finally, I note that any attempt by Virginia to enact asphalt change regulation will make Virginia less competitive vis-a-vis other states. It makes no sense for Virginia to hamper its economy because of a made-up problem when none of the other states are going to take similar action.

    • JFT, We would still have to maintain our roads even if we banned all trucks. As you say, weather-related expansion and contraction of asphalt will lead to deterioration. I suppose I should have addressed that point in my post. Ideally, here’s what VDOT would do: Calculate what percentage of wear and tear on roads is attributable to weather and allocate those costs to all drivers, regardless of the size of their vehicle. Then they would allocate those costs attributable to heavy loads to the vehicles with heavy loads.

      • Jim:

        jft’s comment was a joke. Have all you pointy heads in Richmond had your senses of humor surgically removed? He was playing back the climate science denial logic in the context of asphalt. I thought it was both clever and funny. Maybe jft will post a comment saying he was serious about anthropogenic asphalt change and I’ll have to eat crow. But, until that happens, I am going to assume he was kidding.

    • jft, nicely done! 🙂

  7. Hmmm. Come to think of it, I guess it was a joke. Well, the joke’s on me for not getting it! That’s what happens when you’re reading and writing too fast!

  8. remind me to tell Jim when someone is kidding him tongue in cheek…


    but do we have real numbers for truck damage?

    do we know how much we’d charge over-weight trucks commensurate with the estimate damage they cause?

    would you charge the same penalty if they were 1% over as the guy that is 30% over?

    you know the funny thing – we have folks who argue that it’s wrong for the EPA to charge penalties for screwing up Accotink Creek but they advocate penalties for trucks that screw up the roads…

    how does that work?

  9. reading the study that Jim referenced in the update… the title says it all:

    “Permit Equity Study
    An Equitable Approach to Setting Permit Fees
    for Overweight Motor Vehicles”

    even though the damage is estimated to be 175 million in 2007 (page 16 of the 195 page report)….

    the actual permits are modest, generating as Jim reported – about 5 million i revenues.

    they did a survey of other states – to see what is typically being charged and I presume to assure Va is similar to other states.

    and the Conclusions is succinct:

    ” Although the fees recommended in this report do not fully recover the cost of damage to pavements and structures caused by vehicles operating under an overweight permit, they do represent a significant contribution from industry to help pay for the maintenance and repair of the Commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure. The recommended schedule of permit fees
    also establishes a more equitable distribution of costs, both among different types of overweight vehicles, and between carriers operating overweight vehicles and other motorists using Virginia’s roadways. Finally, the fees, though in some cases substantially higher than those currently in effect, have been proposed at a level where they are not expected to impair
    the Commonwealth’s economic competitiveness. Indeed, given the benefits that industry will enjoy upon enactment of the proposed fees—such as one-stop shopping for state and local permits, designated access route permits to facilitate movement of commercial freight into localities, and enhanced communications regarding route restrictions—the full package of
    legislative and administrative recommendations offered in this report should only enhance Virginia’s reputation as being “open for business.”

    Bottom Line: The state has calculated the damage and has decided quite openly to accept the damage so they can be perceived as “business friendly” and “competitive with other states”.

    that should pretty much end this discussion I would think… us taxpayers will pick up those costs – so we can continue to be competitive with other states and not unfairly punish trucking business interests…


    • Larry, well stated. But this is why I get pissed every time someone cries about the need to raise taxes for transportation. I’ve asked legislators from both parties when do they propose to get the trucking industry off welfare. Mumble, mumble, mumble. And why I root for freight rail over trucks. The rail freight industry pays for its own infrastructure.

  10. TMT wrote:

    And why I root for freight rail over trucks. The rail freight industry pays for its own infrastructure.

    (1) Freight rail can haul freight that might otherwise be on the highways, but generally, the freight move has to be 400 miles or more before that makes sense.

    (2) Some of the biggest customers of railroads in the U.S. are companies like UPS and FedEx.

    (3) Many railroads in many states (including Virginia) received substantial state subsidies to build their lines, starting in the 19th Century.

    • I agree with cpzilliacus

      rail moves train-sets of goods to include things like coal and autos but most of America that needs goods does not exist on a rail line and trucks move those goods from the distribution centers to the customers. The trucks are not going to go away and I sometimes wonder if the weight issue is a proxy for lots of trucks on the roads.

      The report also allude to the complexity of trying to determine on a per truck per percent basis ( which is actually how some of the permits are categorized, i.e 1%, 2%,5%) the actual cost.

      Most rails rights of ways came as a gift from the Federal Government and one of the biggest agencies of of some rails today is their real estate operations where they still own and sell parcels they originally were given in exchange for building rail for commerce. Rails also have the govt power of eminent domain.

      What some countries in Europe do is “overbuild” roads and bridges to sustain heavier loads .. a pay me now or pay me later approach.

      Not saying we don’t have flaws and inequities, we do, but in the end – this is one of those classic “regulation” conundrums where regulation is needed to minimize harm – but often-times citizens end up paying for the costs of it as regulated businesses with higher costs because of regulations will pass that cost on to customers – so in essence – we’re going to pay anyhow whether we pay for road damage or pay for the costs of stiffer regs because what the trucking companies are fundamentally doing is trying to put more on a load so they can reduce the number of additional truck deliveries – an attempt at reducing shipping costs (and of course increasing profits).

      some of the biggest damage that I’ve seen is not just the interstates, it’s the tendency for companies like WalMart, McDonalds, even small stores like Subway to be resupplied via a tractor trailer running a “route” and once they get off of the interstates and onto local roads that often get flexed and “alligatored” and then come winter water get underneath , freezes and makes potholes… (that you don’t really see that often on interstates).

      Most of the stuff we see delivered in trucks may have come to a region on rail but the last leg of trip goes from the rail to where there is no rail – on a truck.

  11. larryg wrote:

    What some countries in Europe do is “overbuild” roads and bridges to sustain heavier loads .. a pay me now or pay me later approach.

    Sweden and Finland allow truck combinations with gross weights of more than 130,000 pounds on their public highways. This is mostly motivated by the important economic role that forest products play in both nations, and the massive loads of logs to be transported from the forests to the pulpmills and sawmills.

    • In other words, they build for the economy they have – using taxpayer dollars rather than lighter duty roads and higher maintenance costs – also paid for with tax dollars.

      so which is more cost effective?

      high initial construction costs or higher maintenance costs?

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