My boss, Civil Beat Managing Editor Jim Simon, has gotten away with driving his Nissan Leaf for far too long.

Sure, maybe he’s helping to save the planet by driving a car that emits zero greenhouse gases. But he also dodges the taxes that most other Hawaii drivers pay at the pump because he doesn’t fuel up at gas stations.

Jim and his electric car driving brethren don’t contribute nearly as much to filling potholes, repaving and all the other maintenance needed to keep the state’s crumbling roads in some working order. This, fellow commuters, needs to change.

What I’m saying is, my boss needs to pay more taxes.

But before this column gets me fired, let me point out that I drive a 2009 Prius. I pay maybe half the gas tax as the average Hawaii driver to cover the same distance traveled. I should pay more taxes, too.

As use of electric vehicles, shown here charging on the Washington State Capitol campus in 2015, grows, the state wants to tap those vehicles for road-usage fees. Washington State House Republicans

In Hawaii, drivers pay 16 cents a gallon in state gas tax, most of which goes to highway maintenance. That comes to $80 a year for anyone who drives 10,000 miles in a 20 mpg car. Recently, there’s been controversy over the state Department of Transportation’s proposal to switch to a mileage-based model, or a “road usage charge,” instead.

Multiple U.S. states, mostly in the West, are looking to replace their declining gas tax revenues with some other scheme as more hybrids and electric vehicles take to the roads. 

Hawaii’s no different. In the past two years, state fuel-tax revenues have plateaued at $83 million, down from levels that had approached $90 million during most of the previous decade, audits show. DOT officials say they expect those dollars to keep dwindling — and that they need to do something.

But in Kapolei last month, a public meeting to gather feedback on replacing the gas tax got so heated that the police responded. Several days later, a Maui Now story generated more than 100 comments from readers upset at the road usage charge proposal.

Who Wins, Who Loses?

At first glance, the resistance from Kapolei and West Maui makes total sense.

A mileage tax would by definition hit the state’s rural residents who drive farther the hardest, right? Plus, on Oahu, “rural” often means lower-income residents — those who can’t afford the criminally expensive prices to live in town.

Affluent townies win. Hard-working families lose.

Except, that won’t happen with a road usage charge — and here’s why:

(I can hear you yelling at me through your computer screen, guy who got the cops called in Kapolei. Hear me out!)

First, DOT officials say the switch would be “revenue neutral.” In other words, they wouldn’t collect more than the $83 million they currently get from the gas tax. If they want to increase that amount they’ll still have to go hat in hand to the Legislature. The only thing that changes would be the tax model. So if that’s the case, who actually wins and who loses?

Under the gas-tax model, heavy gas users already shoulder most of the burden to help maintain Hawaii’s roads and highways. Remember, Jim uses those roads too but he doesn’t pay a cent.

A road usage charge would level the playing field. It would force Jim and me and all those Tesla drivers out there, with their all-purpose touch screens, to pay our fair share of that fixed annual $83 million in road upkeep. Those who drive older, gas guzzling cars would pay less than they do now to drive the same distance. The tax would no longer be pegged to the pump.

And where do most of Hawaii’s gas guzzlers live? Let’s go to the map:

This interactive map from Civil Beat data reporting fellow Carlie Procell breaks down the average mpg by zip code. The lighter the shade of green, the lower the mpg. Type in your zip or your address and you’ll see the average mpg for your area.

Spots like Kapolei, West Maui and all the rural zip codes have lower mpg on average than in town, based on this 2015 DOT data. Molokai! That’s where drivers pay more gas tax out of their pocketbooks.

Plus, if you commute into town from the west side, much of the gas you buy — and the tax you pay on it — gets wasted idling in H-1 freeway gridlock. You’re paying extra gas tax to sit extra hours in traffic. A road usage charge would tax solely on distance, no matter how slowly you creep along.

Oregon Blazing The Trail

Still skeptical? Oregon’s been charging a volunteer pool of 1,500 drivers a road usage charge since 2015 under its “OReGO” program.

Drivers who get better than 20 mpg pay more than the gas tax, OReGO spokeswoman Michelle Godfrey said. Meanwhile, those who get less than 20 mpg get a credit on the gas tax they pay at the pump.

The program clearly benefits low-mpg drivers. But most of the volunteers drive cars with greater than 20 mpg, Godfrey said. They even have electric vehicle drivers — “transportation enthusiasts” — who participate despite paying more tax, she said.

OReGO officials are surprised they are not seeing more low-mileage drivers participating. They suspect the reason could be many rural drivers’ misperceptions of who benefits, Godfrey added — not unlike the drivers in Kapolei and West Maui.

“They’re not considering the gas component” that they already pay, she said.

To be sure, there are other big challenges to making a road usage charge work, such as legitimate privacy concerns about tracking where a person drives.

OReGO gives volunteers the option to either just record the odometer or to track locations for those who don’t want to be charged for driving out of state. In Hawaii that wouldn’t be much of an issue. No one is driving out of state. At least, I hope not.

Another challenge, Godfrey notes, is that the gas tax is hidden to most drivers. You pay it in real time at the pump and you don’t think much about it. Under a road usage charge, however, you might be irked to see a bill due from the state even if you’re saving money.

EV Sales Discouraged?

At a recent public meeting in Lahaina, the handful of residents who attended had good questions about how a road usage charge might work.

“It seems like it’s a disincentive for fuel efficient vehicles and electric vehicles,” Lahaina resident Chris Brown told DOT officials. “How does your department feel about the fact that the state is simultaneously incentivizing those vehicles in other ways and then dis-incentivizing them through a policy like this?”

We need more EVs to replace gas guzzlers. Car emissions are among the worst contributors to climate change. Fortunately, Hawaii has some of the strongest interest in buying EVs, with half of the state’s drivers projected to be driving such cars by 2045.

I wasn’t able to reach clean energy advocate Blue Planet Foundation for input on Friday but I’d love to hear what the folks there think. My hunch is that having EV drivers pay their fair share in road upkeep wouldn’t significantly dampen the interest. It will, however, provide some equity to lower-income drivers who can’t afford to buy a new Tesla or live close to work in town.

Let’s hope today’s gas guzzling car models eventually disappear for good. Once they’re gone, we’ll have a scheme in place to take better care of our crumbling roads.

Kenui Dapitan, an Oahu native who’s spent the past 12 years on Maui, thinks the public’s state tax dollars aren’t going far enough to alleviate traffic. Marcel Honore/Civil Beat

Some Lahaina residents want to see the tourists who’ve crowded the local roads in greater numbers pay a higher share.

“We are getting stuck with paying all these extra fees and we need more and more roads like the (Lahaina) bypass to ease the congestion for the tourists,” Lahaina resident Amy Stephens said. “That’s probably one of the No. 1 complaints about being in Lahaina.”

Good, thoughtful feedback — and no one called the cops.

However they charge people, Lahaina resident Kenui Dapitan just wants to see the DOT make more effective use of those dollars to ease traffic.

“There’s just too many people,” Dapitan lamented during an afternoon party with friends at Wahikuli Wayside Park. “The infrastructure can’t handle so many people.”

DOT will spend the next three years studying whether a road usage charge could work here. When it’s done, the agency will give a report to the Legislature. Drivers could start seeing mock bills of what they would pay next year.

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