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Is charging alt-fuel drivers more good for roads or bad for the air?

Published February 7, 2014 5:45 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah Democrats say a bill that would charge owners of hybrid, electric and natural-gas cars more to register their vehicles sends mixed signals about the Legislature's desire to clean up the air.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, said drivers of those alternative-fuel vehicles still use roads, but don't pay nearly their share — and in some cases don't pay anything — in gasoline taxes, which go to maintain the roads.

His SB139 would nearly quadruple the fee to register a hybrid vehicle and roughly triple the fee for a natural gas or electric vehicle.

"It is despicable, in our current air crisis, and given all the rhetoric on clean air, that the Utah GOP would even entertain a piece of legislation aimed at raising taxes on low-emission vehicles," Utah Democratic Party Executive Director Matt Lyon said in a statement. "They should be slashing them and encouraging more Utah drivers to buy hybrid, electric and natural gas."

Harper said he supports incentives encouraging people to buy alternative-fuel vehicles. The state currently gives a $2,500 incentive for a natural-gas vehicle and $605 for the purchase of a hybrid. Another bill, HB74, sponsored by Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, would extend the same $2,500 state credit to electric vehicles and increase the credit for hybrid vehicles to $1,250.

Even with the increased registration fee, Harper said, buyers of alternative-fuel vehicles would come out ahead for years.

Harper said the average driver of a gas vehicle pays about $120 per year in gas taxes, while the driver of a natural-gas vehicle pays $38 and a hybrid owner pays $35.

"So the fee adjustment is to say, 'This is a user fee because you drive on the roads like everyone else,' " he said.

If the change isn't made, Harper argues, the roads would deteriorate and all drivers would suffer.

Clean-air groups also criticized Harper's proposal.

"Senator Harper must be under the impression that Utahns are looking for legislation that would make our air dirtier," said Carl Ingwell of the Utah Clean Air Alliance. He noted electric cars already cost more than regular vehicles and Harper's bill "would widen the gap, putting cleaner vehicles farther out of reach."

There are two separate proposals looking at raising the gas tax over time to boost stagnant gas-tax revenues and helping fund road maintenance. But that would just move more of the burden to drivers of traditional gasoline-powered cars.

Harper's bill, which was made public this week, has not been scheduled for a hearing.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke