The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

September 6, 2013

Hybrids’ funding puzzle

By John Finnerty

HARRISBURG — Should the government punish responsible drivers? Consider the situation with people who buy hybrid vehicles. Or those who buy natural gas-powered vehicles.

Their actions are good for the environment. Natural gas vehicle are good for Pennsylvania’s new economy. Alternative energy is good for America because it reduces our dependence on foreign oil.

But buying alternative energy-fueled vehicles is not good for PennDOT.

The Department of Transportation’s funding model is stuck in the 20th Century. The state collects taxes for road repairs based on fuel consumption rather than how many miles a vehicle travels.

On top of that, the tax is a flat amount per gallon rather than a percentage of the price per gallon. So, even though the price of gas now exceeds $3.50 a gallon, the state’s take is unchanged.

But the price at the pump is encouraging more people to buy fuel-efficient vehicles.

It occurred to me to wonder about all this after listening to a lobbyist opine that it’s dumb that one state agency (the Department of Environmental Protection) provides incentives for people to buy alternative energy vehicles when it creates this funding conundrum for another state agency, PennDOT.

So, again the question is: Should the government punish responsible drivers?

Thus far, no Pennsylvania lawmaker has mustered the gumption to suggest it.

A Transportation Funding Advisory Commission considered the question but decided that it wouldn’t make sense to discourage people from buying fuel-efficient vehicles, said state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County.

Instead, the TFAC crowd suggested that the state lift the cap on the wholesale tax on gas, recognizing it as the least bad idea, it seems. That plan will translate into an estimated increase in the price at the pump of between 25-28 cents per gallon, according to most estimates.

No one much likes that.

Longietti concedes he opposed the transportation funding plan because of the tax increase and the fact that there just didn’t seem to be enough in the plan to benefit his constituents. But, Longietti, a member of the House transportation committee, notes that he has not heard a better idea.

It may not be long before someone decides it’s time to punish drivers for getting fuel-efficient cars. Or, if punish is too strong, develop a plan that reflects how much a vehicle uses the road.

North Carolina lawmakers came up with the idea of a Prius tax. Hybrid owners would pay an extra $50 a year on their vehicle registration. Owners of all-electric vehicles would pay an extra $100 a year to register their cars.

But that’s not as crazy as Oregon’s plan.

Oregon may have Big Brother watch where everyone drives and then deduct a fee based on where and how far the vehicle goes. Which is downright creepy.

They call it a vehicle miles traveled fee. Longietti said that when Oregonians visited a couple years ago, they described a system so sophisticated it can detect if you are driving in rush hour on a congested roadway so the state can charge you extra for helping clog the road.

As you can imagine, that plan ran into some resistance from the Americans who live in Oregon. The program is currently voluntary. Participants pay 1.5 cents per mile they travel, but they don’t have to pay the state’s gas tax.

We’ll see how that goes. But, it’s clear enough that with no one in Pennsylvania coming up with any great ideas for transportation funding, it is possible that Big Brother might be the one with the best answer. Creepy as it seems.