Review of Regional Research

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 173–209 | Cite as

Optimal Fuel Taxes and Heterogeneity of Cities

  • Georg Hirte
  • Stefan TscharaktschiewEmail author


In the United States all levels of jurisdictions are allowed to levy supplements to the federal fuel tax level. While fuel tax differentials at the state level are substantial, there is a relatively small differentiation across cities. This seems surprising given the heterogeneity of U.S. metropolitan areas. Against this background, the objective of the present paper is to analyze whether the current small level of tax differentiation across heterogeneous metropolitan areas is justified on efficiency grounds. We employ a spatial urban computable general equilibrium approach and calculate optimal gasoline taxes for an average U.S. prototype urban area characterized by a medium degree with respect to the spatial distribution of jobs (implying a medium spatial expansion of the urban area, medium degree of externalities, medium public transit share etc.) and for cities that differ with respect to these and further characteristics. We find that in our prototype urban economy the optimal gasoline tax is higher than current rates as suggested by previous studies calculating nationwide optimal gasoline taxes. Furthermore, it is shown that optimal tax levels may vary considerably across heterogeneous cities, much more than actual tax rates. This implies that stronger spatial fuel tax differentiation across cities could raise social welfare. However, we also show that setting an optimal spatially uniform tax, i.e. a uniform tax that maximizes the sum of the benefits generated in all cities, is capable to generate a significant fraction of the maximum achievable welfare gain under optimal city specific locally differentiated gasoline taxes. Interestingly, such an optimal uniform tax could deviate from all city specific optimal fuel tax levels. This suggests that the additional benefit from spatial fuel tax differentiation might actually be relatively small, in our case the efficiency premium is less than one-thirds.


Fuel tax Gasoline tax Urban economics Tax differentiation Job sprawl 

JEL classification

H21 H71 R13 R14 R48 R51 



We wish to thank the guest editor, Rüdiger Hamm, and two anonymous referees for their constructive comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Traffic Sciences Friedrich List, Institute of Transport & EconomicsTechnische Universität DresdenDresdenGermany

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