Federal agencies may be inadvertently shortchanging the government for the fuel they use under the current system for reporting gas consumption, according to a recent watchdog report.

The General Services Administration charges a monthly fuel fee based on the miles that agencies have traveled in their fleet vehicles. But that system doesn’t account for certain fuel-burning activities that don’t add miles, such as speeding, idling, or rapidly starting and stopping, according to the Government Accountability Office.

(Vahid Salemi/AP)

The GAO, Congress’s nonpartisan oversight arm, concluded that “having each agency pay for the fuel it actually uses could increase incentives to reduce fuel costs.” In other words, they’ll be more mindful of the gas they use if they have to pay for it in full. 

The GAO acknowledged that administrative burdens can sometimes outweigh the advantages of stricter guidelines, but it said the GSA should at least weigh the costs versus the benefits in this case.

“Without examining the trade-offs of changing GSA’s rate structure so that agencies pay for the fuel they actually consume, GSA may be missing an opportunity to encourage agencies to minimize fuel costs and save taxpayer dollars,” the report said.

The report also said agencies may be able to reduce their fuel costs by using “telematic” devices, which record various forms of driving information. Many auto-insurance companies offer the gadgets to their customers to track their habits on the road, using the promise of reduced rates as an incentive to participate.

The GAO recommended gathering information from federal agencies that already use telematic devices to determine whether they achieved savings on fuel costs. The GSA agreed with that suggestion and said it will take steps to implement it.

The report said GSA also does not provide clear guidance on how it determines whether to charge agencies with additional fees for excessive wear and tear on their leased vehicles, leaving them to guess whether they should lease or buy, according to the GAO. The report said GSA has begun to develop guidance in that area.

Federal agencies leased about 190,000 vehicles from the GSA in 2012, paying about $1 billion in fixed monthly fees plus fuel costs, according to the report.

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