The problem with the gas tax is its name.
A tax on gas, a logical person might infer, must have something to do with the production of the fuel itself.
The truth is, we tax gas (well, we don't, but the state and federal governments do) to raise money to build and to maintain the streets and roads we drive on in our gas-powered vehicles.
The misleading label gets particularly problematic, though, when you add electric cars to the equation.
They, of course, don't run on gas, which means drivers don't pay the gas tax (Oregon's tax is 30 cents per gallon; the federal rate is 18.4 cents).
But electric cars do ply the same roads as conventional vehicles, whose owners help foot the bill for maintenance.
More to the point, electric vehicles wear down those roads just as regular cars do.
Even more so, in some cases, as a vehicle's impact on roads is based, in part, on its mass.
The all-electric Nissan Leaf, for instance, weighs about 3,400 pounds.
That's considerably more than the gas-powered Ford Focus (2,600 pounds)
and Nissan's own Versa (2,700).
Some Oregon lawmakers want to address this tax discrepancy now, while
the fleet of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles is relatively small.
(State officials estimate there will be fewer than 1,000 such cars
registered in Oregon by the 2014 model year; the number is projected to
increase to 70,000, though, by 2021.)
They've introduced House Bill 2328. It would charge drivers of electric
and plug-in hybrids (the latter can travel 35 miles or more on battery
power alone, burning no gas) a per-mile tax as a substitute for the gas
The bill, if passed, wouldn't take effect until 2014 model cars are on the road.
Oregon needs something like HB 2328. Every vehicle, regardless of its
means of propulsion, that contributes to the degradation of public
roads should be taxed to help pay for their upkeep.
The details of how to ensure such equality, though, probably need some tweaking.
HB 2328 would levy a per-mile tax of up to 1.43 cents. For a driver who
travels 12,000 miles per year (inside Oregon; miles driven outside the
state would be exempt from the tax), the per-mile tax would total about
$172, roughly equivalent to the annual gas tax tab for a conventional
vehicle that also travels 12,000 miles, and averages 21 mpg.
Pickup trucks and behemoth SUVs can get that kind of mileage these
days. We think electric cars and plug-in hybrids ought to be taxed more
like extremely efficient conventional cars - models, of which there are
many available now, that get at least 40 mpg.
Opponents of HB 2328 argue that the government shouldn't tax drivers of
electrics and plug-in hybrids at all, in order to encourage people to
buy such models.
But the gas tax isn't designed to influence car buyers' decisions - it's supposed to keep the roads they drive in decent shape.
Besides which, buyers of electrics and plug-in-hybrids already get
major income tax breaks. The federal incentive is $7,500 for the Leaf
and the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt.
Oregon's income tax break is up to $5,000.
Based on those numbers - and on the sticker prices of the Leaf
($33,000) and Volt ($41,000) - we doubt a new tax of $172 per year
would discourage anyone from buying such a vehicle.
But that money would help ensure that Volt and Leaf drivers, as they
roll along on their hard, low-rolling resistance tires, don't get their
kidneys bounced around terribly.