Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Hybrid, electric car fees could help make up for lost taxes

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 27, 2013 

— The government wanted Ryan Turner to save gas and quit stinking up the air, so it encouraged him to drive a car that runs on electricity.

A $7,500 federal tax credit helped him buy his red Chevy Volt. He charges the big battery overnight at home in Raleigh and drives to work in Chapel Hill. Then he plugs into an Orange County charging station for free, to power up for the drive home.

The Volt has a fuel tank, but Turner hardly needs it. He has put 28,000 miles on the odometer in 16 months, and he has burned just 26 gallons of gas.

Turner is part of one government solution, but he also is part of another government problem.

He’s helping the rest of us breathe cleaner air and reduce petroleum imports. But, because he pays almost nothing in motor fuel taxes, he is contributing to a decline in the funds we need to fix our bridges, buy our buses and pave our roads.

So Turner has no problem with a state Senate budget proposal to collect new fees from drivers of hybrid and electric cars. It would be $100 a year for electric-only cars such as the Leaf and Tesla, and $50 for hybrids and plug-ins that use gas or diesel fuel, including the Volt and Prius.

“We all need to pay for the roads,” said Turner, 35. “For people who pay very little into the system because they burn very little gas or no gas at all, there needs to be some way for them to contribute.”

But Turner has little company on this issue. While a handful of hybrid and electric car drivers told the Road Worrier they would gladly pay the fees, more than 30 said they opposed it.

“Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush have encouraged Americans to be less dependent on foreign oil, so we rather feel we are doing our part, minor though it is,” said Jerry Rhodes of Cary, whose family has a Prius and a Camry hybrid.

Some detected a mean-spirited, ideological bias behind the proposal.

“I take great exception to North Carolina taxing us for doing the right thing,” said Bill McCalla of Cary, a Prius driver. “This is pure and simple political retaliation from those now in power, who do not believe in global warming, to punish those that think we should minimize our carbon footprint.”

McCalla and other drivers mentioned a separate Senate bill that would block sales of the all-electric Tesla in North Carolina – the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year – because Tesla bypasses car dealers and sells directly to customers.

“Does effectively banning sales of Tesla … and taxing electric and hybrid cars seem like the policy of a forward-thinking state?” asked Peter Henderson of Raleigh, who gets 41 miles per gallon from his Lexus hybrid. “This from the party that hates taxes?”

North Carolina will have more drivers on the road 10 years from now, after an expected population growth of 1.3 million. But gas and other transportation tax revenues are expected to decline by 2 percent a year, mostly because of improved fuel economy.

It’s a national problem, and many states have begun looking at new ways to pay for highways and transit. Virginia has just adopted a complicated new transportation finance program that includes a lower fuel tax, more sales taxes and a $64 fee for all hybrids and electric cars.

Leandra Vicci of Siler City, a Leaf driver, hopes North Carolina eventually will join other states that are experimenting with ways to tax all drivers by the mile.

Meanwhile, Vicci said, “I recognize the need to fund the road infrastructure and personally do not begrudge the idea of paying an annual road tax of $100.”

North Carolina leaders aren’t talking yet about mileage fees, increased taxes on car sales (lower here than in neighboring states) or other big ideas for generating more transportation money. These new fees would raise a modest $1.5 million a year from the estimated 1,200 electric and 27,750 hybrid vehicles on the road now.

“Electric cars and hybrid cars use the roads, so they should be paying a part of the tax,” said Sen. Neal Hunt, a Republican from Raleigh who proposed the fees.

Hunt acknowledged that hybrid drivers already pay gas taxes – “a little bit, yeah” – and he said he wasn’t trying to punish drivers who take steps to improve their fuel economy.

“I don’t call it penalizing them,” Hunt said. “We’re trying to make it fair for all users of the highways, so everybody’s contributing.”

Some hybrid drivers are contributing more than others – and more, even, than folks in standard compact cars. While many Prius drivers get more than 50 miles out of every gallon, there are plenty of hybrid SUVs and trucks that deliver less than 24 mpg.

The state’s stake in all this will only grow as more of our driving is powered by electricity, and less of it by gasoline. With his Volt, Ryan Turner paid only about $15 in state and federal fuel taxes over the past 16 months.

If he had traveled the same 28,000 miles in, say, a standard car delivering a respectable 30 miles per gallon, Turner’s gas tax payments would have added up to $525.

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