Pay by the gallon or mile? State looks at fuel tax alternatives

  • Tribune-Herald file photo Motorists pass the Texaco gas station on Kamehameha Avenue in Hilo.

A state project exploring a replacement for fuel taxes remains on schedule, but some remain skeptical.

The Hawaii Road Usage Charge Demonstration Project — or HiRUC — recently issued surveys to drivers around the state asking about their driving habits and how they would prefer for pay for infrastructure upkeep. Among the questions in the survey are several that gauge the user’s support for a plan that would charge drivers based on how many miles they drive on state roads, rather than the amount of gas they purchase.

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The rationale for the change is simple, said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige. As technology improves, vehicles become more fuel efficient, which means fuel taxes generate less revenue for the state to use on road improvements.

The road usage charge would instead charge drivers based on how much they drive, regardless of their vehicles. Therefore, the driver of an electric vehicle — who currently pays $0 in fuel taxes — would be charged the same amount as the driver of a low-efficiency pickup truck if the two vehicles drove the same amount.

Currently, the fuel tax rate in Hawaii County is $0.23 per gallon, which is paid on top of the state tax rate of $0.16 per gallon and the federal rate of $0.18 per gallon.

The average person drives an average of 12,000 to 15,000 miles per year, according to the Department of Transportation. Under the current system, an average driver, traveling 15,000 miles a year in a vehicle that travels 22 miles per gallon of fuel — the state’s average — will pay $109 a year in state fuel taxes.

The proposed new system would charge all 15,000 mile-per-year drivers the same, regardless of what they would pay in fuel taxes. Therefore, a driver of an F-150 truck — who currently pays $141 in state fuel taxes — would instead pay $109 per year under the new system, as would an electric vehicle driver, who currently pays no fuel tax.

At the end of the survey, participants can volunteer to participate in further studies, including reporting their mileage and driving habits to the Department of Transportation through 2020 and 2021 to help project researchers make adjustments to the payment scale.

Kunishige said that, based on the current schedule, the project will make its final report to the state Legislature by the end of 2021.

“We want to make sure people know that we’re not doing this yet,” Kunishige said.

However, drivers of electric vehicles — who stand to pay more under the proposed scheme — have some concerns over the proposal.

Noel Morin, president of the Big Island Electric Vehicle Association, pointed out that electric vehicles represent only 1 percent of vehicles in the state.

“I definitely support more people adopting electric vehicles. I hope we can get a lot more people driving them,” Morin said. “But something like this could actually lead to a decline in adoption.”

With electric vehicles representing so little of the state’s traffic, Morin said the state should work more on incentivizing EV adoption before introducing a fee change to replace fuel taxes.

Furthermore, he said, eliminating the fuel tax would remove a disincentive for people to use traditional petroleum-fueled vehicles, putting the state at odds with its own commitment to transition to entirely clean energy by 2045.

“In general, I think that a fee-for-road-use makes sense,” Morin said. “At some point, hopefully soon, we’ll have mostly emission-free transport options and the fuel tax will not be able to sustain our infrastructure. However … the action must be done in concert with other agencies to ensure that systemwide consequences are understood and negative ones mitigated.”

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So far, the state has made no official statement on how the road usage fees would be determined for commercial vehicles.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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