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Gas-tax equivalent coming for electric cars?

Q: The state and federal road-use taxes are added to gasoline and diesel fuel for vehicles that use these fuels for ‘propulsion’ on the roadways. The new Chevy Volt does not use gasoline to ‘propel’ the car. Propulsion is provided by electrical power exclusively; the only function of the gasoline engine is to charge the battery. So how would owners of the Volt, as well as all-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, pay their share of road-use taxes? It’s an interesting quandary that may require Harrisburg and other state legislatures to re-word their tax codes, particularly if this technology becomes the wave of the future.

— William Walters, Eldred Township, Monroe County

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Dan Hartzell
Dan Hartzell
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A: Ed Sokalski of Salisbury Township plugged the same question into my email outlet recently. The shortcut answer is that they’re working on it in Harrisburg and other state capitals; Washington state recently imposed a $100 annual fee for electric-vehicle owners.
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In Washington, D.C., the issue is on the dashboard navigation screen, though specific federal legislation has yet to be proposed, according to Jay Friedland, legislative director for Plug-In America, a nonprofit advocating for plug-in vehicles.

You’re driving on the right side of the road in assuming that, if sales of the Volt, Leaf and other cars propelled strictly by electricity accelerate the way some people expect, new ways to finance road construction and repairs will be needed. Those revenues already are running on “E”, in part because gas-tax rates haven’t budged, and gas sales have been crimped by the sluggish economy and proliferation of higher-mpg vehicles like Toyota’s popular Prius.

Prius and other gas-electric hybrids use either an electric motor or a regular gasoline engine to turn the drive wheels, depending on conditions. The Volt is propelled by an electric motor almost exclusively, and the batteries are charged by plugging in to an electrical outlet. But the Volt also has gas engine to charge the batteries if the driver can’t make it to a plug-in location. The Leaf is driven strictly by an electric motor that can be recharged only the plug-in way; if you run out of juice on the road, it’s time to call AAA. Nissan claims a range of about 100 miles; real-world testers have gotten slightly less.

Pennsylvania, which faces a crucial shortage in road- and bridge-repair revenue, has a mechanism in place to collect a gas-tax equivalent from those driving Leafs and Volts, but as yet no definitive means of collecting it. Owners recharge the vehicles using either a standard household outlet, or by having a dedicated higher-voltage line installed that can slash charging times by two-thirds. The problem is, there’s no way to segregate the juice used to “fill up” the car from that used to heat the house and run the refrigerator. A separate electrical meter could be installed, but there’s no requirement for owners to do that.

Friedland at Plug-In America, which promotes plug-in electrics like the Volt, Leaf, Ford Focus BEV and other expected models, said states are considering a variety of options for filling the pothole of lost gas-tax revenue.

Oregon, for example, is kicking the tires on a Vehicle Miles Traveled concept, in which the road-use tax would be calculated based on the number of miles traveled each year, Friedland said.

VMT is Plug-In America’s favored model. “The best long-term public policy is [a tax] based on VMT” with the weight of vehicle factored in as well, Friedland said. The tax should be phased in so that sales of electric vehicles are not unduly stifled by the levy, and also to avoid a costly bureaucracy dealing with relatively few vehicles, he said.

The group expects that about 50,000 plug-in cars will be riding on American roads by the end of this year — compared to a total of more than 130 million cars, 110 million trucks and 8 million motorcycles. Plug-ins might be steering onto the news pages, but they still have a long road ahead in the market.


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