Registration fees in Utah for electric, hybrid cars may soon skyrocket to highest in the nation

Fees for some could quintuple under a bill that advanced on Monday.

Owners of electric and hybrid vehicles may soon face up to a five-fold increase in Utah registration fees — making them the highest in America — which critics say will hurt sales and harm efforts to reduce air pollution.

That comes as the House Transportation Committee on Monday advanced HB209 on 6-4 vote, which would increase the fees. The bill now goes to the full House.

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, Senate sponsor of the bill, who handled the presentation of it for an ailing Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, the bill’s main sponsor, said electric cars and hybrids now totally or largely escape gasoline taxes that fund road maintenance.

So, he said the proposed fee hikes would force them to pay more of what he says is their fair share. However, he says they would still pay perhaps 20% less than drivers of most gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles pay on average per year in fuel tax, still giving some incentive to clean-air vehicles.

The bill would raise the fees for electric vehicles (such as Tesla, KIA Soul or Nissan Leaf) from $120 to $300, up 150%.

Registration fees for plug-in hybrids (such as a Chevy Volt or PHEV) would quintuple from $52 to $260.

And fees for hybrid electric vehicles (such as a Prius) would rise from $20 to $50, up 150%.

“This bill would increase EV [electric vehicle] fees to the highest in the nation,” complained Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, which was echoed by many critics. “This is the wrong policy at the wrong time and sends the wrong message” — and would hamper adoption of clean-air cars.

A long parade of clean air groups and activists agreed.

Grace Olscamp, a policy associate with the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said the bill would shock “the system with increased fees that would prevent most citizens from ever affording these vehicles.” She said only 2% of cars on Utah roads are electric or hybrids, and more are needed to reduce pollution.

Elizabeth Converse, representing Silicon Commons, an advocacy group for technology companies, said it worries about what “we’re saying not only to your constituents, our Utah community, but also to the rest of the world” with high fees on clean-air vehicles.

Resident Robert Wheat said he is in the market for a new vehicle. While he would like an electric vehicle with no emissions, he said the fees and taxes would be far cheaper over the life of a new vehicle on a fuel-efficient gasoline-powered car with high mileage — so government is creating disincentives for people to move to cleaner vehicles.

Rusty Cannon, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, disagreed with the objections.

He figures that electric vehicles now pay $261 a year less in registration and gas tax than a typical gasoline powered vehicle in Utah that he says gets 20 miles per gallon and travels an average 15,442 miles a year. With the proposed increase, he figures electric car owners would still pay $81 less than gasoline-powered cars.

That amounts to a 20% discount as an incentive for driving an environmentally friendly car, Cannon said. “You’re still going to pay less than the average gas driver does.”

Also, Utah offers a pilot program that could allow electric and hybrid car owners a chance to pay less if they drive less, called the Road User Charge program. It charges a monthly fee per mile driven, up to an annual maximum of what the registration fee would be otherwise. If the car is driven less than that amount, he or she pays less.

Cannon said the break-even point now for an electric vehicle is driving about 8,000 miles a year. With higher fees, the break-even point would be 20,000 miles a year — possibly encouraging more electric vehicle owners to switch to the road user program.

Officials in Utah hope to replace gasoline taxes entirely in a decade or so by switching all cars to a road user charge based on miles driven. Clean-air advocates pushed for a quicker conversion to avoid high fees on clean-fuel cars now, to possibly avoid what they see as a move to penalize these drivers.

Harper said he believes the bill will not hurt air quality and, “I believe it levels the field more for people who use the road, regardless of the type of fuel that they consume. And it moves us towards the future where we can have a more equitable mileage-based program for everyone.”