The transportation department says owners don’t pay enough gas taxes to the highway maintenance fund, but environmental groups and drivers say the state should find another way to fill the gap.
by Peter McGuide, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
The LePage administration is proposing to make it more expensive to own a hybrid or electric vehicle in Maine.
The Maine Department of Transportation wants to impose an annual registration fee on the vehicles, $150 for gas-electric hybrid cars and $250 for all-electric models.
An extra fee is needed to make hybrid and all-electric owners pay their fair share of state road repairs that are funded through a tax on gasoline sales, said Meghan Russo, manager of legislative services for the MDOT.
“The idea is that the owners of these types of vehicles are paying far less in the gas tax than other vehicle owners and they are using the highway system just like any others,” Russo said. “There has got to be a way to try and capture revenue from those drivers who are using our road system.”
Outraged conservation groups and vehicle owners said they believe the legislation deliberately targets them for protecting the environment and their wallets without really addressing the state’s chronically underfunded highway fund.
Hybrid and all-electric vehicles account for less than 3 percent of all passenger vehicles in Maine, according to statistics from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
“I feel like I am being punished if this bill goes through because I am doing the right thing,” said Gretchen Ebbesson-Keegan, a retired teacher from Camden.
South Portland has public charging stations for all-electric vehicles at its community center, where it parks its Nissan Leaf. A proposal calls for a $250 annual fee on all-electric models. Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski
Ebbesson-Keegan, 72, has a 9-year-old Toyota Prius she uses to get around town, averaging about 25 miles a week. The proposal feels to her like part of an effort by some Republican politicians to stymie growth in renewable energy and green technology.
“At some point, we have to take a stand on transitioning to alternative energy,” she said. “They need to come up with a way to take care of the roads that does not set people against one another.”
NEW FEES WOULD STILL LEAVE GAP
News that owning his Nissan Leaf might become more expensive took Mark Marchesi by surprise. Marchesi bought his car a year and a half ago to commute and run errands in South Portland, where he takes advantage of free charging stations the city provides. A new fee would make him rethink owning an all-electric car, Marchesi said.
“I think that goes against what you are trying to achieve by driving an electric vehicle,” he said. “If you are trying to save on gas and you are getting an extra tax on top of it, it kind of defeats the purpose. It feels really unfair to me.”
New registration fees on about 19,450 hybrid and electric vehicles in Maine could raise about $2.9 million annually for highway repairs, according to Bureau of Motor Vehicles statistics. Even with fees contained in L.D. 1806, the state would still be tens of millions of dollars short of closing its highway funding gap.
Maine, like other states, has for years grappled with declining revenue from the state gasoline tax, which is 30 cents per gallon in Maine. The state’s highway maintenance is underfunded by $60 million a year, even after borrowing roughly $100 million annually since 2016 to cover the highway budget.
Officials know fees alone won’t solve the problem, but they want to start a discussion about future revenue, Russo said.
“We think drivers should be paying some sort of fee, let’s talk about what amount would be appropriate,” she said.
OTHER FUNDING IDEAS PROPOSED
Eighteen states have registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maine’s proposed fees would be the highest in the country – other states range from $30 to $100 for hybrids and $50 to $200 for electric cars, Russo said.
The LePage administration also proposed a bill to redirect 12 percent of the sales tax on automobile and automobile parts to the highway fund, but the measure is unlikely to pass because of concerns it will blow a hole in the state budget, Russo said. The two bills together could raise roughly $30 million a year, she said.
Another bill floated by Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, last year and set to be debated again this session would add fees for hybrid and electric cars, but also increase the gas tax, add registration fees and divert some sales taxes to the highway fund.
However, any increase of the gas tax, which hasn’t changed since 2011, is a nonstarter for the LePage administration.
“This administration has been very clear, they are opposed to a gas tax increase,” Russo said.
WHAT ABOUT FUEL-SIPPING GAS CARS?
Defeating the bill is a top priority for the state’s environmental groups, said Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director for the National Resources Council of Maine.
Instead of attempting new approaches to fund Maine’s roads and bridges, the LePage administration is trying to divert attention from the problem by making scapegoats out of electric and hybrid owners, Voorhees said. Focusing on electric and hybrid cars ignores the fact that some conventional gasoline-engine vehicles get nearly as good fuel economy, he said.
“It is a really a very arbitrary way to go about it that reveals that this bill is not about opening a conversation about fair rates, it is punitive,” he said. “This bill will do virtually nothing to bring in revenue to solve this problem.”
Instead of sticking owners with an extra fee, the state should rethink how it pays for its roads, said Tony Giambro, an owner of Paris Autobarn, a service center and used car business that specializes in hybrids and electric vehicles.
The state could levy taxes based on mileage or by weight, to make sure drivers who use the roads a lot, or heavy vehicles that damage roads, pay their fair share, Giambro said.
“We don’t want to get away with not paying road tax, we want to contribute to maintenance of the roads. We would prefer to have the entire system of road tax be changed,” said Giambro, who owns an all-electric Kia.
“We want to pay our fair share, but it needs to be done the right way,” he said