Wednesday, May 22, 2024
Cars

What’s a fair ‘gas tax’ for Florida’s electric vehicles?


Electric cars don’t pay a gas tax, the one that helps build and maintain roads and bridges. They use batteries, not gasoline. That didn’t matter much back when Tesla more often referred to the eccentric Serbian American inventor rather than the world’s best-known electric car. But with an estimated 2.4 million all-electric vehicles on U.S. roads — and millions more plug-in hybrids that need gas only if their batteries run down — it’s time they pay their fair share to repair and build our roads.

Only about 1% of vehicles on U.S. roads are EVs, but that number will climb exponentially. Florida already boasts the second-highest number of EVs in the country, behind only California. By 2030, 40% of passenger car sales in the United States could be EVs, according to projections from S&P Global Mobility. Other forecasts have EV sales closer to 30% of the total auto market by the end of the decade.

Either way, it’s important to get ahead of the trend and figure out an equitable tax or fee system now rather than wait until a funding crisis cripples our road infrastructure. “As owners increasingly turn to electric vehicles, gas tax collections will face continuing downward pressure and, in so doing, reduce the state’s primary funding stream for transportation,” concluded a recent analysis compiled by Florida’s Revenue Estimating Conference.

In Florida, the gas tax is relatively high, which means the state relies on it more, so enacting a workable EV fee or tax is particularly important here. Nationally, the situation is also dire. The federal gas tax — currently 18.4 cents per gallon — hasn’t changed in 30 years.

Gas taxes are simple. Drivers of conventional gas-powered cars pay a tax per gallon at the pump. The more gas drivers burn, the more gas taxes they pay. Typically, heavier vehicles burn more gas and do more damage to roads, so there is some fairness in a system that makes them pay more taxes at the pump.

Taxing EV use is more complicated. EV drivers can “fill up” in many different ways: plugging into an outlet at home or using a slow or fast charger at a public location. Because their batteries weigh a lot, an EV is typically much heavier than its conventional gas-powered cousin. To take just one example, Ford’s electric pickup, the Lightning, makes the scales groan at 6,500 pounds. It is 1,800 pounds more than a gas-powered F-150. EVs have many merits, but a light weight is not among them. That’s why weight should be considered in figuring out how much to make EVs pay, whether it’s a fee or a tax.

Lest we make too much of this point, it’s important to stipulate that semitrailers cause far and away the most damage, according to a comprehensive study by the American Association of State Highway Officials from the 1950s that is still a benchmark today. “The damage due to cars, for practical purposes, when we are designing pavements, is basically zero. It’s not actually zero, but it’s so much smaller — orders of magnitude smaller — that we don’t even bother with them,” Karim Chatti, a civil engineer, told InsideScience. To those who would then conclude that the easy answer is to somehow tax semitrailers much more to make them pay, remember that those trucks bring most of the goods you buy. How much of a surcharge would you be willing to pay at the store or for those online orders to cover the cost of road repairs?

It’s not just about maintaining existing roads. It’s also about having enough money to build new ones. Across the nation, fuel taxes make up about 84% of federal and 29% of state highway funds. Right now, electric vehicles contribute too little to that kitty.

There are many ideas to fix this.

As of May, 33 states levied additional fees on electric vehicles, from $50 a year in Colorado to over $250 a year in Alabama, Illinois and West Virginia, according to Recurrent, a firm that tracks the used electric vehicle market. Earlier this year, the Florida Senate suggested an extra $200 a year fee for EVs. For context, a Florida resident with a gas-powered car who drove 13,500 miles a year in a vehicle that gets 25 mph would pay about $200 in state gas taxes. The bill — SB 1070 — passed the Senate unanimously, but the House let it die.

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Some have suggested levying an “electron tax” at public charging stations, so it would be similar to the tax at the gas pump. But the majority of EV owners who charge at home would still get a free ride.

Oregon has a program that charges EV drivers 1.9 cents per mile. But it’s voluntary and only about 800 drivers are signed up. Charging by the mile has other problems. A tiny EV and a huge, heavy electric truck would pay the same fee, which is inherently unfair. A better method could use a formula that includes miles driven and the vehicle’s weight, using a reality-based sliding scale that factors in the role that heaviness plays in road wear. A mileage and weight approach would still require a way to monitor a car’s annual mileage, a level of government intrusion that makes some people uneasy.

Through all this, it’s important not to punish or unfairly disadvantage EV owners. The goal is simply to have them pay their share to build and maintain roads. Tax policy must not hinder their adoption because, ultimately, they are far better for the planet than the fossil-fuel burning cars they will replace.

Those who argue that EV owners should get a break because their cars have no tailpipe emissions miss the point. They aren’t wrong if they want to make polluters pay, but the answer to that is a carbon tax, and that’s a discussion for another day. In the meantime, everyone who drives on the road should help pay to maintain them. After all, the roads won’t magically build or repair themselves.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.





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