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In 2009, the US government spent more than $42 billion on the federal-aid highway program. Most of this money was raised from motor vehicle taxes, whose proceeds are deposited in the highway trust fund. Federal motor vehicle user taxes flow into the fund and aid expenditures flow out from it to build and maintain highways and other transportation infrastructure. With so much money at stake it should be no surprise that expenditure decisions are the subject of intense political debate. Chief among these debates is the conflict between donor states, whose residents pay more in highway user taxes than the state receives in federal highway aid and donee states, whose residents pay less in highway user taxes than the state receives in highway aid. While this geographic redistribution has been masked recently by infusions of general fund revenue into the trust fund, the debate nevertheless continues. This paper attempts to understand why some states are donors and others are donees by simultaneously testing four hypotheses about the geographic redistribution of federal highway dollars that relate to a state’s highway need, economic condition, level of urbanization, and representation on the key Congressional oversight committees. The analyses show that redistribution does not favor states with larger highway systems, more highway use, or lower median incomes, all of which are different indicators of need. Instead, states that are less urban and better represented on the four key Congressional committees generally benefit from redistribution. These findings indicate that the user tax revenues are not used in places where they are most needed. Thus they provide little empirical support for any compelling policy argument for continued geographic redistribution of federal highway user tax dollars.

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This is an author-produced, peer-reviewed version of this article. The final publication is available at Copyright restrictions may apply. DOI: 10.1007/s11116-012-9413-x