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Are Colorado electric car owners getting a free ride?

Posted at 6:56 PM, Feb 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-16 20:08:29-05

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DENVER — While the volume of cars on Colorado's roads keeps growing, the money used to fix the problems they create is stuck in idle, and at the center of this funding shortfall is electric or more fuel-efficient cars. 

"They are putting wear and tear on our system, but they (electric car owners) are literally paying zero dollars when it comes to the gas tax," CDOT Spokesperson Amy Ford said. "That's why today we have about a billion dollar a year funding gap in transportation."

Ford said the gas tax is the main way the state funds our roads. But electric cars, or EVs, don't need fuel, which means EV owners essentially get a tax break and don't pay a penny in gas tax.

Fuel-efficient cars do pay a gas tax. However, because they get more miles per gallon than most other vehicles they pay a lot less than the least inefficient cars — which is another part of the problem.

EV owners pay an extra $50 fee every year when they register their car, but data from CDOT shows it's is not nearly enough to make up the gap. 

According to CDOT, on average:

  • The driver of a low-efficiency car pays $22 a month in gas taxes.
  • An average-efficiency car owner pays $11 month.
  • High-efficiency hybrid owners pay around $6.29 a month.

This means people who drive the least efficient cars pay, on average, $264 a year in gas tax, and owners of the most efficient hybrid vehicles pay $75.48. 

Both types of vehicles owners are paying more than the $50 a year tax bill EV owners pay, but the breakdown also shows the discrepancy in what drivers are paying based on the kind of cars they drive. 

"Let's not hang this whole problem around the neck of EV's," said Chris Nelder with Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit working to accelerate EV adoption points out.  "It's been a problem for a very long time across the country." 

"Just looking at it from my own perspective it's way short," one electric car owner said to Denver7.

There's more to the story | Governor wants more EV charging stations

The heart of this story really began two decades ago.
"The last time the gas tax was increased was in 1991, when, let's just say, my hair was a lot bigger," Ford said.
Since 1991, the gas tax hasn't moved a penny and remains flat at .22 cents per gallon.
CDOT's view is the gas tax is a dying tax and is considering getting rid of it altogether in favor of a new system where drivers are taxed on the number of miles they drive.
Ford said they recently launched a pilot program to look at a road usage charge system and found drivers were open to the idea.
"The more that people learned about the idea of a road usage charges which that's also called they actually liked it," she said.
Here's how it would work: CDOT would either track your mileage through technology or — if you're not comfortable with that — they could rely on drivers sending them photos of their odometers every month. Drivers would then get a monthly bill in the mail similar to electricity or a water bill.
"I think it's fair, but I don't like it cause I'm saving money," an EV owner said.
"For us, though to make any of those changes our legislature would need to make that change," Ford explained.
For decades, there hasn't been any political will at the state Capitol to raise the gas tax, and Coloradans are also historically known not to support tax hikes.

If lawmakers were to consider raising the gas tax or implement a pay-per-mile system, it would not become law immediately. The TABOR tax hike would have to go on the ballot, and it would be up to voters to decide whether or not it becomes law in the next election. 

Ford said they are starting to see support from some lawmakers for a road usage fee system, but not for all drivers.
"If we looked at a road usage charge [only] for people who had electric vehicles, they actually think that is something they can support. So, it may go in that direction," Ford said.
Ford said there is more support for a road usage fee for electric car owners, instead of every vehicle owner.

This approach is more favorable, Ford explains, based on results from a recent pilot program the agency implemented to test a pay-per-mile system.

During the pilot program, Prius owners were paying more per mile. But owners of gas guzzlers, like the Ford F150, were paying less per mile because of the vehicles' poor fuel mileage. Basically, F150's have to fill up a lot more than a Prius to go the same distance.
"How do you reconcile that? It's not fair, a lot of people will argue," Ford said. "Electric vehicle drivers will argue, and fairly so, that they have a benefit to the environment by using their vehicle … and they do. But that doesn't negate the wear and tear they still have on the road."
One thing is clear though if EVs are the future, lawmakers are going to have to do something about the flat gas tax — the question is how soon?
"We recognize that we have a funding system that is going to starve our roadways," Ford said.