Dillon: Lawmakers Should Seek Reasonable Registration Bump for Electric Vehicles

Any conversation about funding road improvements ought to include discussion of how to make the electrics chip in, too.

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BGA Policy Director Marie Dillon regularly writes opinion articles for the State Journal-Register.

Most Illinoisans would likely agree that charging $1,000 to register a vehicle is an out-of-bounds government money grab. Can we also agree that everyone who drives on our highways should help pay for them?

Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, got his ears blown back last week after proposing a $1,000 registration fee for electric cars. The same bill included a $148 registration fee for gas-powered cars, an increase of $50. The bill would raise $2.4 billion for road and bridge improvements and increase the state’s 19-cents-per-gallon motor fuel tax to 44 cents.

Motorists who drive electric cars are spared the gas tax, of course. They also pay only $17.50 a year to register their vehicles.

The suggestion that their fair share could be in the neighborhood of $1,000 a year offended everyone who drives an electric car, everyone who’s thinking their next car might be electric, and everyone who thinks the state should be doing more to incentivize electrics. Sandoval and Sen. Don DeWitte, R- St. Charles, quickly went to work on Plan B.

On Friday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker shared a draft of his capital plan that calls for an electric vehicle registration fee of “only” $250. It would double the gas tax, to 38 cents a gallon.

The state’s gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1990, and it shows. The federal gas tax, meanwhile, has been stuck at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. There’s a move afoot in Congress to double that, too.

That’s a lot more pain at the pump for most motorists. If you drive an electric car, though, you’d normally be wearing a not-my-problem smile. People who don’t buy gasoline don’t pay gasoline taxes.

Sandoval says that party is over.

“I understand about being environmental and I understand about saving the ozone layer and protecting the ozone layer, but you know what?” he said. “If you use the roads, you should pay into the road fund.”

There’s no question the planet would be better off if electric vehicles were the norm and not a novelty. They emit zero greenhouse gases, and they don’t tear up the roads as much, because they’re lighter. Last year, electric vehicles accounted for less than 2 percent of new car sales nationwide.

There hasn’t been a lot of grumbling (yet) from drivers who shoulder the burden of road improvements through the aforementioned state and federal gas taxes. But any conversation about doubling those taxes ought to include discussion of how to make the electrics chip in, too.

Gas tax revenue is declining, thanks mostly to higher-mileage vehicles and a growing number of hybrids. Meanwhile, you rarely see a reference to the state’s infrastructure that doesn’t include the word “crumbling.” Sandoval says 85 percent of Illinois roads are in need of repairs.

Other states are playing catch-up, too. Since 2013, 30 states have raised fuel taxes, the National Conference of State Legislatures says. Many of those increases have been packaged with some sort of special registration fee for electric and/or hybrid cars. Of the 20 states that now have such fees, the highest is $200. (Ahem.)

Several states have pilot programs toward the inevitable mileage-based road user fees. Illinois ought to get busy on that. Meanwhile, it needs a fair funding model that doesn’t dampen enthusiasm for greener vehicles.

Those drivers still have some healthy incentives, not the least of which is that they don’t have to buy gasoline. They also have the peace of mind of knowing they’ll get into Heaven ahead of the people who drive monster SUVs.

A reasonable registration bump — something in the very low three digits, maybe — isn’t likely to tip the equation enough to discourage people from driving plug-ins. But let’s not get carried away.