Russell Nichols is a GOVERNING staff writer.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The word of the moment is: alternative.
Across the country, drivers are switching to electric cars as an alternative to vehicles that run on fuel. And with gas tax revenues on the decline, states are searching for alternative funds to maintain roads.
But here’s where the rubber meets the road: Several states have been suggesting that owners of electric cars – seeing as though they pay less in gas taxes, but use the roads just the same – should pay a fee as their contribution to road upkeep.
Pitched in Washington, Oregon, Texas and elsewhere, such proposals come after years of government campaigns and tax breaks to entice people to step away from the gas pump and get plugged into the future. Gas prices continue to soar, and the use of electric cars has spiked in the past two decades. But America’s roads need help. And as gas tax revenues dry up, some lawmakers want to charge electric car owners to recoup the losses. In Washington state, for instance, a measure to make electric car owners pay a $100 annual fee could become the nation’s first electric car fee.
"Electric vehicles put just as much wear and tear on our roads as gas vehicles," Democratic state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, the bill’s lead sponsor, told the Associated Press. "This simply ensures that they contribute their fair share to the upkeep of our roads."
The latest scheme comes out of Utah, where legislators want to pump more money into the state’s Transportation Improvement Fund. Gov. Gary Herbert recently vetoed Senate Bill 229, which would have diverted some $60 million a year, to start, from state sales income tax, to go to the state highway fund. Lawmakers could override the veto, but the measure would divert money away from education, human services, prisons, etc.
Is it fair to charge electric car owners when cheaper fuel was an incentive for buying the car in the first place? Of course, public officials don’t want any fees to discourage people from buying a fuel-efficient car. But at the same time, the roads won’t fix themselves. It’s a dilemma has left many state governments in gridlock, according to the AP:
The Texas Legislature recently put the brakes on an attempt to establish an electric vehicle mileage fee pilot program, after encountering significant opposition. The plan's backers said they hoped to try again in a couple of years.
Oregon previously experimented with using GPS devices to monitor and report the number of miles driven inside the state. Privacy advocates denounced it, fearing the government could use them to track drivers.
Mississippi lawmakers briefly considered an annual usage-based tax on electric vehicles, but the bill died in committee in February. The tax would have been equal to one-half cent per mile for the total miles traveled during the previous year, as indicated by the vehicle's odometer.
It’s not a bad idea to start looking into other avenues for road revenue, but don’t expect electric cars to flood to streets anytime soon. In the U.S. market, hybrid and electric vehicles won’t rise above 10 percent before 2016, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2011 U.S. Green Automotive Study.
"Alternative powertrains face an array of challenges as they attempt to gain widespread acceptance in the market," said Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates, in a statement. "It is the financial issues that most often resonate with consumers, whether it is the higher price of the vehicle itself, the cost to fuel or charge the vehicle, or the fear of higher maintenance costs."
In short, it’s not cheap being green.
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.