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Fuel or fair: The electric car question

To North Carolinians who drive an electric plug-in vehicle, thank you. Your purchase has helped nudge our state and country toward a future that relies less on petroleum-based fuels. Your commitment to a lighter lifetime carbon footprint goes beyond just talking about our environment to becoming pioneers of a new technology. You are the homesteaders of the highways.

For that, you have our gratitude, plus a federal tax credit of up to $7,500.

Now, about those roads on which you drive. An N.C. Senate budget proposal this month would add $100 to the annual registration fee of electric-only cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla. Hybrid owners would pay $50. The fees would provide revenue for the N.C. Department of Transportation.

The proposal has been met with some pious indignation from members of the green car crowd, who have leapt to their keyboards to remind everyone how they’ve heeded their government’s call to lessen our dependency on dirty fuel. This is true, and the environment is better off for it.

But North Carolina depends on its gas tax to maintain about 80,000 miles of state roads, along with the state’s bridges (at least 20 of which are substandard, according to a survey released Friday by AAA Carolinas). The electric car fee comes with a simple premise: If you use those roads, you should help pay for them.

From there, things get less-than-simple. How much, exactly, should N.C.’s electric car owners contribute? The average licensed driver in the U.S. puts about 14,000 miles on his or her vehicle (according to the U.S. Department of Transportation), and the average vehicle on U.S. roads gets about 24.5 miles per gallon of gas. For each of those gallons in North Carolina, consumers pay 37.5 cents in state taxes. Using those figures, our handy Editorial Board abacus tells us that a typical N.C. driver pays about $214 in gas taxes a year. The state is asking electric car owners to pay substantially less. That’s reasonable.

The people who might have a real beef are hybrid owners, especially those who drive larger sedans, trucks and SUVs. Those hybrid vehicles get the same or worse miles per gallon as many gas-only vehicles, yet the hybrid owners face gas taxes plus the proposed $50 annual fee. Lawmakers should give that budget provision another look for a fairer approach.

It won’t be easy. Like many states, North Carolina faces transportation challenges that are only going to get worse. Our gas tax already is among the highest in the nation. Our roads aren’t getting any cheaper to build or maintain. And although more taxpaying drivers are entering the state, their cars will continue to boast better fuel economy. That means even less gas tax revenue.

Some states, including Washington and New Jersey, have passed or are considering electric vehicle fees similar to the one proposed here. Others are contemplating taxing all high mileage vehicles, and think tanks are suggesting a tax on miles traveled. Of course, there’s the more traditional approach of toll roads or higher sales taxes on vehicles.

None of which are pleasant options for North Carolinians. But N.C. lawmakers need to start confronting the issue soon with a more comprehensive approach. A tax on electric cars, while fair, would raise just $1.5 million a year. That’s a small drop of fuel in a revenue tank that’s starting to spring some leaks.

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