Electric vehicle owners might have to start paying a $100 registration fee every year under a bill that passed the state Senate on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 5251 moved forward in a 36-11 vote, with supporters saying it would ensure that all drivers pay something to maintain state roads but opponents arguing a flat fee for all battery-powered cars was a simplistic approach.
The drive for the legislation was fueled by the growing unreliability of state gas tax revenues, which are used to maintain and build roads, bridges and ferries. Because owners of all-electric vehicles don’t pay the tax, the bill’s supporters said, Washington must find other ways to bring in transportation money.
“They’re going to drive on our highways, and this is a way for them to pay their fair share,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, the bill’s primary sponsor.
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About 1,316 plug-in vehicles were registered in Washington in 2010, according to the state Office of Financial Management, and that number is expected to increase to about 17,202 vehicles by 2020.
Under the Senate transportation budget, which assumes the electric-vehicle tax bill would pass, the state would spend about $4.87 billion on highway-related projects in the 2011-13 biennium.
The state’s gas tax brings in about $1.2 billion per year, but that has not increased since 2008, and gas consumption in Washington has stayed flat since 2000.
The bill, which still must pass the House and be approved by the governor, would bring in about $468,000 over the next two years. By 2015, as the number of electric cars in the state grows, it could generate about $1.7 million every two years.
Electric car advocates say that under this bill the state would miss an opportunity to adapt its transportation revenue system into something more compatible with modern, alternative fuels.
Dan Davids, president of electric car advocacy group Plug-In America, said he would like to see fees for all vehicle owners based on their odometer readings. Owners would report them when they renew their vehicle registrations.
He said fees or taxes to pay for roads should be based on how much drivers actually use them.
“We’re totally on-board with fairness,” Davids said, “but we think to just do a Band-Aid for electric vehicles for now doesn’t solve the problem.”
Seattle Electric Vehicle Association President Steven Lough said he would like to see a fee based on miles traveled, vehicle weight, battery-pack size or some combination of those. That way, people with very small cars who do not use the highways on a regular basis wouldn’t pay disproportionately.
When the bill was in committee, legislators added a provision exempting electric cars that cannot travel more than 35 miles per hour. But Haugen said the state did not have a good method for taking that into consideration.
Tonia Buell of the Washington State Department of Transportation said the state is working on projects, such as the West Coast Green Highway Initiative, to set up charging stations 40 to 60 miles apart along the Interstate 5 corridor.
“We’re really trying to become a magnet state for electric vehicle manufacturers to send their cars out here,” Buell said.
Lough, however, said he’s concerned that a fee on electric cars could be a disincentive for prospective buyers, even though $100 is small compared with the cost of an electric car such as the $33,000 Nissan Leaf.
“It may be a very small disincentive, but it’s a psychological disincentive all the same,” he said.
Haugen said that even with the fee proposed in her bill, electric car owners would pay less in taxes and fees than most car owners in the state.
According to 2008 data from WSDOT, a driver who travels 12,000 miles per year pays on average about $204 annually in state gas taxes. Also, people who buy electric cars do not have to pay state sales tax on their purchase, and they can get about $7,500 in federal tax credits.
Rep. Judy Clibborn, a Mercer Island Democrat and chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said she supports the bill, which will likely come to her committee next.
Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org