A Taxing Matter

February 24, 2014

Mark D Larsen

Paying for the Pavement
(click to enlarge)

The exponential growth in the number of electric vehicles has recently set off a shockwave of panic among the legislative bean counters in various states. Specifically, because citizens have traditionally paid road taxes at the gasoline pump, and since EVs do not fill up at those pumps, lawmakers throughout the country have concluded that those drivers are no longer paying their “fair share” to maintain and repair our highways. Consequently, many of them are proposing quick-and-dirty solutions with bills to charge EV owners a flat-rate road tax with their annual vehicle registration.

Washington State has already approved a $100 fee. Just today I saw that Senator Ray Cleary is sponsoring a similar law in South Carolina to levy a $120 surcharge on EVs, and $60 on any and all hybrids. In my own state of Utah, Senator Wayne Harper is proposing State Bill 139, which specifies charging fees at registration according to these categories and amounts:

I have exchanged several messages with Senator Harper about the issue, and will reiterate my input and suggestions below.

Lest anyone think otherwise, let me state right up front that I have no quarrel with everyone paying their “fair share” to maintain the roads. It is part of our social contract, no matter the drivetrain or fuel of our individual vehicles. Nonetheless, I purport that the issue needs much more careful thought and planning. To be quite blunt, simply imposing a flat fee on what are perceived as “freeloader” vehicles fails to correct the supposed “unfairness.”

In truth, the current system is already unfair. For example, I pay more road taxes when I fill our Subaru Outback than a Chevy Cruz owner, simply because the latter uses half the amount of gas that I do to travel the very same distance (same wear-and-tear on the roads). Moreover, imposing a flat registration fee for all electric vehicles is even less fair. If I drive an average of only 15 miles per day in my Nissan LEAF, yet a Tesla Model S owner drives 60, why should I have to pay the same tax when the latter’s distance (wear-and-tear on the roads) is four times higher?

It is also worth mentioning that there are significant differences between “hybrid” vehicles. For example, a Prius is a parallel hybrid that burns gasoline simultaneously while its batteries power the drivetrain. A Chevy Volt, however, is a serial hybrid, which uses electricity for up to 40 Miles, and only fires up its gasoline generator beyond that distance. Consequently, given that the average commute in this country is 37 miles per day, the Prius is already paying more road taxes at the pump than the Volt —yet proposals like those from Senators Cleary and Harper charge them the same amount at registration.

In short, the kinds of specific examples listed above are anything but “fair” when it comes to drivers’ use —and abuse— of the roads. Ergo, rather than pushing through quick-and-dirty legislation at the present time, lawmakers need to step back, research the problem more thoroughly, and then prepare more equitable, reasonable, and workable solutions for the future, perhaps along the lines of what I suggest below.

In reality, the entire road tax paradigm needs revamping, literally from the ground (road) up. We need to think outside the current box and abandon the antiquated idea of paying road taxes at the pump —for all vehicles. For example, a registration charge based on annual mileage would be a viable alternative, provided it also took into account vehicle weight. Heavier vehicles impact the roads much more than lighter vehicles, and thus a straight per-mile fee would not suffice, nor be truly “fair.” I have thus prepared a draft table of the road taxes that might be appropriate according to annual mileage and vehicle weight. To determine the amounts, I used as a base these current ballpark averages in my state:

From there, I could easily calculate the corresponding amounts with a matrix of miles and weight. Readers are welcome to download a spreadsheet with the results. To exemplify how such a road tax would apply in the real world, the spreadsheet also includes another table with an off-the-cuff sampling of different types of vehicles according to their annual mileage. I will reproduce that table here:

2,535 lbs. Mini Cooper hatchback $20 $40 $60 $80 $100 $120 $140 $160
2,815 lbs. Mazda 3 hatchback $23 $45 $68 $90 $113 $135 $158 $180
3,042 lbs. Toyota Prius hybrid $25 $50 $75 $100 $125 $150 $175 $200
3,192 lbs. Honda Accord sedan $25 $50 $75 $100 $125 $150 $175 $200
3,242 lbs. Nissan LEAF electric car $25 $50 $75 $100 $125 $150 $175 $200
3,263 lbs. BMW Z4 convertible $25 $50 $75 $100 $125 $150 $175 $200
3,423 lbs. Subaru Outback wagon $28 $55 $83 $110 $138 $165 $193 $220
3,786 lbs. Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid $30 $60 $90 $120 $150 $180 $210 $240
4,290 lbs. Jeep Liberty SUV $35 $70 $105 $140 $175 $210 $245 $280
4,510 lbs. Dodge Grand Caravan minivan $38 $75 $113 $150 $188 $225 $263 $300
4,925 lbs. Ford F-150 truck regular cab $40 $80 $120 $160 $200 $240 $280 $320
5,467 lbs. GMC Yukon SUV $45 $90 $135 $180 $225 $270 $315 $360

Another solution would be to pay road taxes via tire sales instead of at the gas pump. All vehicles, no matter the fuel or drivetrain, have tires —from motorcycles to 18-wheelers. The more tires the vehicle has, the bigger and more expensive, the faster they wear out from excessive mileage... the more that vehicle is impacting the roads and the owner should pay more taxes accordingly. This would literally solve the problem “where the rubber meets the road.”

Of course, I’m sure that tire stores would object to this proposal. Change is always threatening to the status quo. On the other hand, they would know that all tire stores would face that same change, so it is not as if a particular business would feel more “targeted” than any other. After all, we know that, under the current system, gas station owners do not like charging road taxes at the pump either, but after all these years they have begrudgingly grown accustomed to the imposition. Tire stores might also simply have to adapt to a new solution.

I purport that these suggestions make much more sense than a mere bandaid solution that imposes flat fees on EV owners, no matter how much wear-and-tear they do —or do not— inflict upon our roads. Given that these citizens are taking the initiative to curb global warming, clean up the environment, and break our addiction to the fossil fools’ “drug,” you would think that our leaders would want to reward rather than punish them with truly unfair, across-the-board, lump-sum “fines.”