Gas Tax Spending Steers Commuters' Taxes Away from Congested Areas

For Immediate Release: 
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

A new investigation of spending patterns by state departments of transportation finds that commuters' federal gas taxes are being diverted to far-flung rural and exurban areas within their states, rather than relieving taxpayers' commutes through expanded commuter mass transit options. These patterns hold true even within states that are net beneficiaries of federal highway funds relative to what their citizens collectively pay to the federal highway trust fund program.

The House is poised to vote tomorrow on how to spend $280 billion dollars in transportation money across the country for the next six years.

For many fast-growing, sprawl-heavy communities without strong mass transit options, gas tax payments are being spent by state departments of transportation in areas where most tax-paying commuters aren't. In 176 metropolitan areas nationwide, gas tax payments to the highway trust fund exceed spending on transportation by a total of more than 20 billion dollars, according to a months-long investigation by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization.

EWG performed several million computer-assisted calculations on three million U.S. Department of Transportation records. The results are posted at, allowing commuters to see for the first time which communities within their states are net losers under current spending patterns by their state's department of transportation.

EWG found that:

  • 20 metro areas topping the list of those short-changed each netted at least $247 million less in transportation project funds from 1998-2003 (click for top 25 metro area "Gas Tax Losers");
  • Commuters in 54 metro areas netted a loss in excess of $100 million each over the period;
  • Commuters in the two most short-changed areas, the Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County and the Dallas-Fort Worth metro areas each saw a billion dollars less than they paid;
  • Phoenix-Mesa metro area commuters lost $900 million while Atlanta-area commuters saw $787 million less than they paid; and,
  • Detroit-Ann Arbor-Flint corridor commuters essentially donated $639 million to projects elsewhere.

The report includes data on 176 metro areas, by state.

EWG's investigation is the first nationwide look at disparities in spending within states. Its finding are consistent with state-specific studies of Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado undertaken by other organizations.

"Commuters can now see how their money is being spent within their states, and findings are stark and clear: we won't ever build the rail and bus systems needed to relieve congestion when the money is getting spent somewhere else," said EWG Senior Vice President Richard Wiles.

The metro areas that are net winners in transportation funding tend to have a well-established, ambitious bus, subway, or light rail system, and often a combination of those mass transit options.

"Basically, commuters are paying to sit in more traffic than they ought to — or have to," said Dusty Horwitt, principal author of the study. "Their communities could see revenue and jobs if Congress just altered spending formulas for our tax money."

EWG is a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization that uses the power of information to protect the environment and human health.

Key Issues: