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American highways: The efficiency conundrum

AMERICANS pay a federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. That amount was set in 1993, when the average new passenger car on American roads got 28.4 miles per gallon (mpg), and the best-selling American car got 18mpg in the city and 27 on highways. In 2010 the average new passenger car got 33.7mpg. The best-selling car got 22mpg in the city and 33 on highways.

And just as cars are growing more fuel-efficient, Americans are driving less. In 2010 they drove just under three trillion miles—less than they did in 2006. While better fuel-efficiency is good news for Americans’ wallets and less driving good for the country’s air, for its highways and mass-transit systems, it is something of a disaster.That is because federal funds, mostly derived from fuel-tax revenue, account for 22% of all highway funding and 17% of mass-transit funding nationally (with the rest coming from state and local governments). Fuel taxes go into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which was created in 1956 to finance highway construction nationally. The HTF still spends most of its funds on highway and bridge maintenance and construction, but…

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