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Electric Vehicles and the Future of Paying for the National Highway System

Electric vehicles should pay their fair share, but how?
Electric vehicles should pay their fair share, but how?

For decades, it seems that the best way to unobtrusively pay for, at least the maintenance of, the national highway system has been to tax fuel, but what about electric vehicles that burn no fuel?

This seems logical, as the more miles you travel, the more fuel you burn. Similarly, the heavier your vehicle, the more fuel you burn. In both cases, heavy vehicles and lots of miles traveled, take their toll on the highway system. Paying for more fuel results in more tax revenue, which states use to repair the damage done by all that travel. In the last twenty years or so, however, as the average fuel economy continues to go up, fuel tax revenues are going down. Worse still, from a fuel tax revenue standpoint, are plug-in hybrid and pure electric vehicles, who may burn no fuel at all.

Take, for example, some hypermiling Chevy Volt owners in California, some of whom are topping 5,000 mpg. By taking advantage of the Volt’s extended-range electric vehicle powertrain’s design, which gives them about 37 miles of pure electric driving range, they’re basically running 5,000 miles without spending a cent on fuel. The average American, on the other hand, buys 200 gallons of fuel to go the same distance. How does California pay for highway maintenance given that it’s missing out on 5,000 miles of fuel taxes?

Hybrid electric vehicles, being lighter but still using fuel, didn’t pose that much of a question for regulators, but this is a question that’s coming up more and more often, especially as pure electric vehicles, such as the Tesla Model S and Nissan Leaf, are becoming more popular. Personally, I’m all for the mass-weighted per-mile fee, but how would you even implement that sort of thing? Some states have imposed yearly taxes on hybrid and electric vehicles, while others have considered a per-mile tax or even raising or expanding highway tolls. Is there any good solution to the problem?

Image ©  Alan Stanton

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