Let's Ding Electric-Car Owners With a Special Gas Tax While We Can

Last Updated Mar 3, 2011 8:07 PM EST

If you don't buy gas, you don't have to pay the gas tax, right? That's a big extra bonus for owners of electric cars, who are giving the figurative finger to the oil industry. Unfortunately, they're also checking out of improving the very highways that they'll be plying in their rides of the future.

Infrastructurist's Eric Jaffe zeroes in on this quandry in a post that nicely summarizes the issue. The idea has been floated that EV owners should pay a nominal fee -- not a tax, mind you -- to maintain the nation's battered asphalt. But he goes on to argue that the real problem isn't with EV owners checking out of their civic duty, but rather with the gas tax itself.

EV owners ought to pay to play
He's right, of course. As he points out, the gas tax has "remained stuck on 18.4 cents per gallon" since 1993. I'm not even sure what happens when you submit that figure to 17 years of inflation. But he overlooks the very real possibility that EV owners will gladly pay an infrastructure fee. I mean, have you seen how much EVs cost right now, even after tax breaks? They aren't being aimed at a budget-conscious buyership.

Washington State wants to hit EV drivers up for $100. My guess is that most EV buyers can afford this, easily. The cost could be rolled into a car's purchase price and it would become basically invisible.

Good karma and bragging rights
But they wouldn't want it to be invisible. They'd want to be reminded at every opportunity that they're not just freeing us from our dependence of foreign oil and saving the planet, but also doing their part -- above and beyond -- to eradicate potholes and keep overpasses from falling down.

This may not last, so the states should hit up EV owners while they have the chance. Over time, if the carmakers can ramp up both EV and battery production and bring new technology to the market, the cost of electric cars will go down (at least for entry level models). Mass-market owners may be a lot less friendly to a "virtue tax" than early adopters.

Ride EV owners and ride them hard
A historic opportunity is a historic opportunity. It's uncommon in business to discover a whole new class of customer who will gladly overpay for the privilege of owning a product. It's even less common for that class to be generally sanguine about higher taxes and usage fees. They know the states are in trouble, and they're generally affluent enough to be able to see their $100 EV virtue fee as a worthy investment.

True, there may be some complaints that EV owners are being unfairly dinged. Of course, they are benefiting from relatively massive tax breaks because they're bought a qualifying vehicle, so why not return some of that wealth? When you get right down to it, the money has to materialize, because the nation's decrepit infrastructure has been neglected. It was a marvel when built in the 1940s and 1950s, but it isn't a marvel anymore. It's a burden that has to be borne.

If you charge them, they will pay
Luckily, if there's one thing EV owners love, it's the whole concept of infrastructure rescue. The average Prius owner has probably read at least one in-depth article on the subject. Potential EV owners probably think about it in their spare time. These are the very definition of willing victims, for a fate that on balance that isn't worth fighting about and could have a significant impact on the country's revival.


Photo: Matthew DeBord