The overall condition of Hawaii’s highways rank near the bottom when compared to other states, according to an annual state highway report released last month by the Reason Foundation. Hawaii ranked 47th overall in highway performance and cost-effectiveness, and 50th – worst in the nation — in terms of urban interstate pavement condition.

That means havoc for your car and, with the state deferring traffic mitigation projects to focus on maintenance, countless hours for you spent in traffic.

While the Hawaii Department of Transportation is working with available funding and resources to address these roadway concerns, the increased adoption of electric vehicles is prompting the department to take another look at how the state is going to fund roadway maintenance and improvements heading into the future.

First, we should give credit where credit is due: The DOT is thinking proactively. In response to evolving driving behavior, whether actual or anticipated, it’s appropriate to start considering long-term options and how they pencil out.

Today, the state’s gas tax is the largest source of funding for our state’s highways, contributing approximately 31 percent of revenue for maintenance and new construction projects. Owners of EVs, which make up only 0.63 percent of Hawaii’s 1.06 million passenger vehicles, do not contribute into that fund.

During the recent Maui Energy Conference and Exhibition, I had the privilege of presenting a case study highlighting the policy proposals under consideration by DOT as well as agencies in other states. Options include the implementation of a Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax, also known as a “Road User Fee,” which would charge motorists by miles driven, rather than by fuel consumption.

However, while the tax identifies motorists that travel more frequently along our public roadway, it is unsuccessful at distinguishing between the various types of vehicles being driven. This means larger vehicles, which require more energy and have a greater impact on the environment, would be taxed at exactly the same rate-per-mile as fuel-efficient vehicles. Less efficient vehicles would actually be paying less per-unit of emissions or per-unit of energy used than electric and other fuel-efficient vehicles.

Bottom line: An immediate swap of the gas tax for an across-the-board VMT tax is simply bad policy.

Climb Out Of Your Silo

While the DOT is addressing its transportation goals, we must not forget that energy and environmental factors are no less important and must be considered. We can do better by working together and across functions.

A frequent criticism of government is that it works in silos, and implementation of a flat gas tax would be an example of a siloed approach — it ignores the state’s energy goals, primarily driven by the State Energy Office, and the state’s sustainability goals, overseen by a combination of agencies including the Department of Health, Department of Land and Natural Resources and Office of Planning.

The author speaking at the Maui Energy Conference and Exhibition in mid-March. Courtesy

A better solution would be to gradually move from the gas tax to the VMT tax as EV share increases. Under this policy, everyone pays something for using the roads, yet there is still an incentive to be more fuel efficient and create less emissions.

The state is better able to balance the public’s interests in transportation, energy and environment, while helping us move toward Hawaii’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy in ground transportation by 2045.

It is worth taking on one myth directly. While it initially takes more emissions to create EVs, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study conducted in 2016 found that EVs generated significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than gas-fueled cars and hybrids over their life cycles to more than make up for it.

For example, when full lifecycle emissions are considered, the Nissan Leaf has half the greenhouse gas emissions of an average internal combustion engine car, and 38 percent fewer than a compact internal combustion engine car. In the study, the full lifecycle included fuel combustion; production, distribution and storage of fuel; and production shipping and disposal of vehicles.

Other solutions range from looking to a carbon tax so motorists pay per unit of emission rather than by the mile; to congestion pricing, which would put in place higher VMT taxes during peak travel times and provide incentives for motorists to travel during off-peak times to reduce traffic congestion and emissions.

There is also the option of developing varying VMT tax rates, which would provide lower rates for EVs and high efficiency vehicles. This option would ask motorists to pay per mile while still rewarding efficiency and lower emissions, although there would likely be rigorous debate over what a “fair” rate would be for each vehicle class.

One thing is clear: Sufficient highway funding is necessary. However, the state must break down silos and consider not only motorists’ usage of the roadways, but energy consumption and impact to the environment.

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