Utah lawmakers saw an inequity in the gas tax. So far, so good. A lot of states have seen the same thing. It’s as obvious as a tomato stain on a white silk tie. Owners of electric and hybrid vehicles aren’t paying the tax.
So they decided to impose a yearly fee on the owners of those vehicles, allowing them to participate in the cost of maintaining the roads they are helping to wear out.
Oops. Now lawmakers look as savvy as someone trying to improve hygiene by placing a tax on soap.
People along the Wasatch Front just survived a December inversion, coughing and hacking through thick smog. If history holds, more of that is on the way before the birds fly north again. Recent studies have linked this air with a host of ailments, including miscarriages.
Also, state rebates for electric cars are long gone, and federal incentives are shrinking.
Against this backdrop, the new fee, set to take effect Jan. 1, looks like a big new government disincentive to buy the one thing that might have the most effect on Utah’s periodic bouts with horrendous air — cleaner vehicles — just at the time when we need those vehicles the most.
Combine this with sinking gas prices — the product of a more-or-less free market dependent on worldwide economic conditions — and there aren’t a lot of reasons for people to give up their traditional cars right now, or to drive less.
So … what to do, other than beat the sagging stock market by investing in facemasks?
Well, if you’re a lawmaker, you could start now to junk the gas tax and replace it with something better. If, however, you keep picking winners and losers — taking a guess at how high a fee should be to cover road wear is an unwitting example of this — the only certain thing is that you will lose.
But first, let’s be honest. As with most public perceptions, the truth here is not as harsh as it seems. Turns out many in state government can read the road signs, even if their timing is off.
The gas tax is becoming as useful as a tax on buggy whips. It’s time to replace it, and the most likely alternative is a tax on the miles people drive. Oregon has been doing a pilot project on this for years, letting volunteers put mileage-tracking devices in their cars.
And now, believe it or not, Utah is about to experiment with the same thing.
State Department of Transportation officials say a voluntary program for what Utah calls a “road usage charge” will begin in January 2020. Owners of alternative fuel vehicles will be allowed to participate. If they do, their annual fees would be waived, and their road charges would be guaranteed to go no higher than the fee would have been.
An advisory committee will decide how to structure this program. The wheels (pun intended) are beginning to turn, however slowly.
A tax on miles driven would treat all drivers equally. No one could complain that their fees are out of whack with what someone else might be paying through gas taxes. No officially sanctioned winners or losers would be declared.
If lawmakers were smart, the state would charge more for miles driven during rush hour as an incentive to further reduce pollution.
Few things are more entertaining than to look at the predictions of experts long ago and see how wrong they were. Right now, a lot of smart people say most of us will be driving electric cars in the future, even though few of us are today. They say we will let ride-sharing autonomous vehicles do our driving. We won’t buy cars of our own.
Someone will get the last laugh. But the waning effectiveness of the gas tax is not a prediction, and it’s not terribly funny. It’s happening already.
In retrospect, it would have been better for Utah lawmakers to wait a year with the fees, unrolling them simultaneously with the choice to do the voluntary program instead.
More importantly, however, lawmakers need to make the transition from a gas tax to a mileage tax a priority, and to do it in a way that encourages people to drive less.
Don’t study this to death; timing and perceptions matter.