SALT LAKE CITY — It's a good news, bad news kind of problem that Utah is facing.
More people are buying electric and alternative fuel vehicles, which is great for air quality. But because those new vehicles don't need gasoline, they don't pay the gas tax at the pump — which is largely earmarked for road repairs and construction. As a result, they're driving on roads they're not fully paying for.
As more people buy electric vehicles, it's creating declines in gas tax revenues.
"There is a reckoning coming with our transportation funding in the state," said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. "And we have less time to solve this problem as policymakers than we thought."
Where the gas tax once generated as much as a billion a year for the state, lawmakers have projected as much as $300 million a year in losses starting in the next few years.
"The fuel tax has been a great funding source for the last century and it remains that," said John Gleason, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Transportation. "But it’s going to be much less viable here in future decades to come."
So lawmakers have been exploring alternatives to the gas tax. An effort to raise vehicle registration fees for electric and hybrid cars backfired when taxpayers pushed back. Toll roads have historically been even more unpopular with everyone, said Utah Senate Transportation Committee Chair Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville.
"We will have less ability to go through and pay for the roads we all drive on," he said in an interview with FOX 13. "And we hate those potholes, we want them filled, we want those bridges safe."
Sen. Harper is planning a bill in the 2022 legislative session to start charging electric and other alternative fuel vehicle drivers based on the miles they travel on the road. A hybrid vehicle owner himself, Sen. Harper has been among 4,000 people participating in a UDOT study about its effectiveness.
"You’re charged one-and-a-half cents per mile that you drive," he said, describing his experience in the pilot program as "positive."
Gleason said feedback on the idea of road user miles has run the gamut.
"We’ve had a lot of positive feedback, people that have enjoyed the enjoyed the program and people that feel it could have run a bit smoother," he said.
Sen. Harper said there's still some issues to be worked out with how it's calculated. For example, the state could use software to track individual trips or just take an odometer reading each year (like Hawaii has done with its experiments on road user miles).
UDOT is scheduled to present to lawmakers next month some proposals based on the pilot program.
Ultimately, road user miles will replace the gas tax. But Sen. Harper said if any bill were to pass next year, the goal would be to fully phase road user miles by 2030.
The senator said he believes it's a matter of fairness for everyone.
"You pay for water, you pay for gas, you pay for electricity, not on a flat rate," he said. "You pay for what you use."
He insisted it would not disproportionately affect rural drivers, who go longer distances.
"This is equitable for the urban and rural parts of Utah," he said. "It should make it so people in rural Utah might pay less because they’re not driving as many miles in a month because they’re taking fewer trips even though they drive a little longer."
Other states across the country are considering similar legislation as they grapple with fuel tax declines.
Sen. Harper said the experiment has even made him a better driver. With the tracking program he used, Sen. Harper said he got safety feedback and he started consolidating his trips to the store or errands he needed to run.
"It helped me drive a little bit better, I thought," he said.