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Federal Lawmakers Target Electric Vehicles in Transportation Reauthorization

How will motorists who don't pay gas taxes fund road upkeep? That's one of the questions that the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee hopes to answer this summer as they work to reauthorize the FAST Act before it expires on Sept. 30, 2020.
July 15, 2019, 1pm PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Matej Kastelic

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a public hearing on July 10 entitled, “Investing in America’s Surface Transportation Infrastructure: The Need for a Multi-Year Reauthorization Bill.” The current five-year, $305 billion, transportation reauthorization law, called the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation or FAST Act, was signed by President Obama on Dec. 4, 2015, and runs through September 2020, which is also when the Highway Trust Fund becomes insolvent.

"Today's hearing is about the need for this committee to draft and to pass a bipartisan, highway infrastructure bill," stated the chair of the committee, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), after gaveling the meeting to order [at 00:18:40 on the webcast]. 

"Barrasso...said...that he and ranking member Sen. Tom Carper [D-Del.] are committed to finding a way to 'responsibly pay for the legislation,'” reports Andrea Noble, a staff correspondent for Atlantic Media's Route Fifty, who covered the meeting.

Both lawmakers expressed support for efforts to move away from reliance on the gas tax, with Barrasso saying he wants [to] see all road users contribute to infrastructure maintenance and improvements.

“That must include electric vehicles [EVs] and other alternative fuel vehicles which will become an increasing share of the cars on the roads,” he said.

That won't be easy for vehicles that don't pay gas or diesel taxes, particularly if it will be on a "pay-for-use" approach. An easier approach, enacted by at least 21 states, would be a flat annual registration fee

Carper ... said funding needs to ultimately switch to a vehicle-miles traveled approach. “That’s maybe about 10 years from now,” he said.

That approach, also called a road usage charge, has been operational on a limited basis in Oregon since 2015. Similar to a gas tax, the charge or fee would be far more equitable than a registration fee as it would be proportional to usage. However, progress on the state level has been painfully slow.  The Congressional Research Service attributes the payment method's difficulties to "privacy, implementation, and collection cost issues," according to their June 4 paper, "Reauthorizing Highway and Transit Funding Programs [pdf]."

Utah's Road Usage Charge offers a choice

One of the five speakers the committee heard from on July 10 was Carlos Braceras, president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and also the executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), who described Utah's Road Usage Charge program that will offer owners of alternative fuel vehicles a choice of paying a registration fee of $90 on Jan. 1, 2020 or paying a mileage fee.

Climate a concern

Aside from how EVs will pay for road upkeep, the committee may also look into expanding electric vehicle charging infrastructure, according to Sen. Carper's statement that stressed the importance of mitigating carbon emissions.

“For too many travelers, there are simply no low-emission travel options available. Electric vehicles are an option, but without a comprehensive nationwide network of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and other alternative fueling infrastructure in place, many consumers lack the confidence needed to purchase the electric vehicles that can help us address our climate crisis."

Bottom line

In terms of ensuring that the Highway Trust Fund is sustainable in the short term, determining how EV motorists make their contribution to the Highway Trust Fund is secondary to the need to increase the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax and 24.4 cents per gallon diesel tax, both unchanged since Oct.1,1993

Related in Planetizen:

Hat tip to Streetsblog California.

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Published on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 in Route Fifty
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