Weaning from oil, and fuel taxes

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board May 18, 2012 01:45 pm

There can be no doubt that Oregon, and every other state, will have to devise a method other than fuel taxes to pay to maintain and build roads and bridges.

The taxation system that states, and the federal government, have relied on for decades works so long as the vast majority of vehicles plying our roads burn petroleum products taxed at the pump.

Today that still accurately describes the nation’s vehicle fleet.

But a decade from now it might not.

Electric cars and hybrids will wean us off oil, but in doing so they’ll also cut off the flow of fuel tax dollars.

Yet those more efficient cars, though they have a lighter touch on our atmosphere, still run roughshod on our asphalt and concrete.

In discussing alternatives to fuel taxes, government officials have focused mainly on the notion of taxing drivers based on how many miles they cover.

This is a logical approach.

What’s not logical, though, is for Oregon or any state to make hasty decisions that affect all drivers.

A task force convened by the Oregon Department of Transportation is mulling a variety of options, including giving drivers a choice of paying a tax based on their mileage, or paying a pre-determined tax each year regardless of mileage.

The only pressing matter now, though, is making sure the owners of electric and plug-in hybrid cars are helping to pay for the wear their vehicles cause.

To that end, ODOT officials intend to ask the Legislature next year to authorize a mileage tax for such vehicles.

Lawmakers should do so.

Any mileage tax should be limited, though, to electrics and plug-in hybrids. Those vehicles — the Nissan Leaf an example of the former type, the Chevrolet Volt of the latter — are capable of covering considerable distances without burning a drop of petroleum. The Leaf, having only an electric motor, burns none at all.

Standard (nonplug-in) hybrids such as the ubiquitous Toyota Prius, by contrast, have a traditional, gasoline-powered engine that’s running most of the time when the car is moving.

Prius drivers shouldn’t be punished simply because they bought a car that’s frugal with fuel.