Last Monday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who suggested a nationwide ban on gas-powered automobile sales by 2030 when running for president two years ago, vetoed a statewide ban on gas-powered car sales by 2030. The bill was heralded as a watershed moment for electric vehicles and climate policy in the US, being more aggressive than state deadlines of 2035 set by California, Massachusetts, and New York. By 2035, Washington intends to follow California’s lead and phase out the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles.
A provision inserted into the legislation was the reason for the perplexing action, said Inslee in a statement. The 2030 aim would only take effect if lawmakers devised a program to charge drivers based on how far they traveled each year, according to the text.
However, there is a catch: gas taxes are used to pay the building and maintenance of everything from roads and bridges to buses and ferries. As more electric vehicles hit the road, notably the Ford F-150 Lightning, which goes on sale next year, petroleum sales will fall, as will tax revenue.
Matthew Metz, the founder and co-executive director of the Seattle-based environmental nonprofit Coltura, believes Inslee lost an opportunity to establish the country’s earliest zero-emission sales deadline. He claims that signing the bill, even with the per-mile tax program attached, would have alleviated future concerns about funding the state’s infrastructure. “Lawmakers can keep kicking this issue down the road,” Metz adds, but it will eventually have to come to an end.
State and federal motor fuel taxes provide for more than 40% of transportation funding in the US, making it the largest revenue source. The federal government, on the other hand, hasn’t hiked the gas tax since it was set at 18.4 cents a gallon in 1993.
Since 2008, Congress has diverted funds from other areas, but the situation is unsustainable: the Congressional Budget Office explains that federal transportation funding will exceed its budget by $188 billion by 2030 if the funding system does not reform. Since 2010, at least 36 states have raised their fuel taxes to raise more revenue.
Meanwhile, vehicles have become more fuel-efficient, with a tiny but growing number of automobiles in the US not using any petrol at all. Automakers say they’ll spend the next decade developing battery-powered vehicles. (Would anyone be interested in an electric version of America’s best-selling car, the Ford F-150 pickup? In 2022, you’ll be able to purchase one.)
For the sake of the world, that change is critical. The transportation industry accounts for 29% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, with light-duty cars accounting for roughly 60% of those. Many people believe that electrifying the country’s transportation system is an essential part of any strategy to combat climate change.
“Lawmakers are realizing that yes, you are meeting this environmental goal” by setting ambitious electrification targets, says Douglas Shinkle, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ transportation program. “But at the same time, you’re negatively impacting the system that those vehicles drive on.”
That is why legislators in Washington state, for example, are interested in road user fees. In theory, the policy is straightforward: instead of paying a tax on each gallon of gas consumed, drivers would pay a tax per mile traveled. The idea was backed by US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in March, but it was not included in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure program.
In March, the Federal Highway Administration stated that it will fund eight road-user-fee pilot schemes at the state and regional levels. Shinkle says that at least 13 states have introduced legislation on road user fees.
However, states that have experimented with and even enacted road user fees, such as California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia, have encountered a slew of issues. Gas taxes are simple and inexpensive to collect because drivers pay at the pump. A per-mile charge, on the other hand, would necessitate collecting data and taxes from millions of vehicles.
Some states have tried radio transponders, while others have tried plug-in devices that provide data to state transportation departments. Residents’ whereabouts are being tracked, according to skeptics. It’s also unclear whether such a system would generate more revenue than it costs.
Others dispute if such a price is reasonable. Should rural drivers always pay more since they drive farther because of where they live? Critics also claim that the entire plan, like the gas tax, is a regressive tax that will take a larger portion of low-income drivers’ incomes.
It gave drivers two figures: an estimate of their gas taxes for the year, and what they would pay if they paid per mile. Hawaii is an especially convenient location for this type of experiment. It’s one of only a few states that collects odometer readings as part of its safety inspection process, a less invasive way to track a vehicle’s annual mileage.
And, unlike vehicles in smaller (and non-island) states, Hawaii drivers are likely to log the majority of their annual miles on Hawaiian roadways. The Department of Transportation is still researching the consequences of a road user fee.
Washington is still researching ways to introduce a road user fee system. After vetoing the 2030 proposal, Inslee stated in a statement that “setting and achieving a goal of 100 percent electric vehicles is too important to tie to the implementation of a separate policy like a road usage charge.”
Meanwhile, other environmentalists believe the entire debate is antiquated. They argue that a gas tax isn’t completely bad because it penalizes drivers of the most polluting automobiles. The Natural Resources Defense Council proposes tweaking the gas tax rather than repealing it. First, it would index the tax to both inflation and nationwide gasoline usage, as many states currently do, so that taxes would rise incrementally as fuel consumption decreased.
The proposal would then levy an annual tax on electric vehicles based on their miles-per-gallon equivalent—basically, how much energy they consume. “In that case, the electric Hummer will pay more than the electric Civic,” says Max Baumhefner, a senior attorney in the NRDC’s climate and clean energy program. “And that’s the way it should be.”