Washington’s Electric Car Drivers to Get Hit With No-Gas Tax
These days Washington’s Department of Transportation is looking for every dollar that isn’t nailed down, and was aided slightly by a law (SB 5251), passed by the Legislature in spring of 2012, that asks electric-car owners to kick in. As of 2013, there will be an extra $100 annual fee due for road and highway improvements when they go to register their vehicle.
As there are about 1,600 electric vehicles (EVs) registered in Washington, this should net the state $160,000, or about the cost of deep grinding one lane-mile of concrete roadway ($175,000). The law targets fully electric vehicles only, since hybrids still use gas and owners pay the fuel tax.
As the Seattle Times reports, this EV fee is in addition to the usual vehicle registration fee. A $100 annual fee was proposed earlier, in 2010, but failed, and WSDOT had been investigating a vehicle-miles-traveled pilot project for electric vehicles, that would base payment on how much the car was actually driven.
What’s most interesting about this for the bystander — not to speak for the 1,600 people reaching for their wallets — is that it highlights the difficulty the state is having raising revenue for transportation costs in ways that strike all concerned as fair.
The fuel tax has long functioned as an ad hoc vehicle-miles-traveled tax, in a pay-as-you-go format. But it has weaknesses — it’s not pegged to inflation, for one thing. And for another, as the price of oil has risen, so has the price of asphalt. The two are tightly correlated, since asphalt is created during the distilling process of crude oil. To account for the increase in cost, DOTs are in the unfortunate position of asking for more gas-tax revenue precisely when people are complaining most about the cost of gas.
Legislatures increase gas taxes in increments they deem feasible, which aren’t tightly correlated with actual need for transportation dollars. (In 2011, SDOT reported that its costs for asphalt paving materials were up 80 percent since 2003. Revenues were not.)
At the same time, people are driving less. Sightline has an exhaustive “Dude, Where Are My Cars?” blog series that notes things like per capita gas consumption being at its lowest level in nearly 50 years, and that “per capita vehicle travel on state roads has actually fallen by about 13 percent over the last decade.” They also point out that because car sales have slumped since the Great Recession, we haven’t seen the full impact of newer cars with great gas mileage.
All this means that, for 2011-13, gas tax revenue is projected to be less than half (46 percent) of WSDOT’s revenue. Most of that is eaten up by payments due on past projects. The result has been triage. To give you an idea of shifting benchmarks, WSDOT now claims that “only” some ten percent of state roads are in poor or worse condition. (Raising the question of why any of it should be in poor and failing condition.)
But if you look into the data, you find that some of the worst roads are the most heavily traveled in the state. Often, they are made of concrete — to stand up to use — and what that means is that they are at the end of a 50-year lifespan, and will be extremely costly to replace. Over the next ten years, WSDOT hopes to allocate almost one billion dollars to replace about 240 miles of concrete roads. No $100 fee will pay for that.