Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Electric car fees: A nineteenth century solution to a twenty-first century problem

Transportation policy in Olympia isn’t exactly what could be described as innovative. When advances in technology obviate old ways of doing things, our lawmakers – let’s not mislead anyone by calling them leaders – reach backwards for solutions instead of looking forwards.

Case in point: a proposal by Senator Mary Margaret Haugen (D-10th District), chair of the state Senate's Transportation Committee, to charge the relatively few Washingtonians who currently own all-electric vehicles a $100 fee to ensure that they make a contribution to building and maintaining our state highways.

“Electric cars will be driving on the highways right along with all the other cars. One of our biggest issues is preservation and maintenance of our existing highways. We believe they should be paying their fair share," Haugen said when introducing Senate Bill 5251 last week.

It makes sense that owners of any vehicle using our highway system should be helping to pay for upkeep, maintenance, and safety improvements.

Yet even though the reality of dwindling gas-tax revenues have been staring them in the face for years, the best solution lawmakers can come up with is to add to the patchwork of fees, taxes and tolls that already exists. Their approach is simplistic, unimaginative, and completely lacking in political leadership.

Their plans do not even begin to address the true challenge of finding a comprehensive, long-term solution to transportation funding. Haugen’s proposal is a short term idea born of the need to look like something is being done instead of doing something that makes sense.

After all, if owners of all-electric vehicles should pay $100 because their cars never use gas, then why not charge hybrid gas-electric vehicles $50 because they only use gas half the time? Why not charge a Geo Metro a higher registration fee because it uses less gas than a Hummer?

Tacking on another fee is politically expedient and doesn’t require too much thinking. Unfortunately, all it does is build on a funding scheme from a previous century, and not necessarily the twentieth. Why can’t the people responsible for transportation policy expand their horizons a bit beyond the nineteenth century in which they’re stuck and embrace twenty-first century technology?

Almost everyone agrees that transportation infrastructure should be funded based on usage – that’s the logic behind fuel taxes and tolls in the first place, and it’s still a valid rationale. What’s changed is technology, and that’s where the solution lies.

Gas taxes made since when it was the only practical method of assessing highway usage – and was equitable when most vehicles got pretty much the same performance out of a gallon of fuel. But owners of vehicles should contribute to highway construction and maintenance based on how much they use the system, not how fuel-efficient or inefficient they are, using more equitable measures such as vehicle weight and miles traveled.

A flat fee – based on each pound/mile traveled – would be a fair way to assess road usage. Vehicle weight is a static measure established by vehicle manufacturers; vehicle miles traveled is a variable easily assessed using GPS technology, which could also be used to charge parking fees by measuring how long a vehicle remains curbside (although there are serious privacy concerns with using GPS to track motorists' whereabouts; another approach may be necessary).

Owners of a small, fuel-efficient vehicle that doesn’t weigh very much but racks up a lot of mileage would pay just as much as a large local delivery truck.

Owners of vehicles that don’t use a drop of gasoline would make a contribution to highway construction and maintenance every bit as valuable as gas guzzlers.

A comprehensive solution like this wouldn’t be easy to implement – meaningful change seldom is. It would require unconventional thinking on many different fronts – in other words, leadership.


Blogger Pahoran said...

As a fellow Washingtonian, I would like to see our state quit trying to incentivize and disincentivize what kind of vehicles we drive with tax policies. Whatever source we use for the revenue raising into the transportation budget, my hope is that it is neutral from the state into what type of fuel propels it. That is for us to decide as individuals.

February 27, 2011 7:48 PM  

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