Commentary: Utah is farsighted to engage in program that could eventually replace the gas tax

All of us expect our roads and highways to be in good repair and drivable. And Utahns pay millions of dollars in fuel taxes each year to help keep them that way.

In fact, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) notes that the owner of an average gas-powered sedan getting 25 MPG and driving 15,542 miles pays $301 each year in fuel taxes. The federal tax levy takes $114 of that amount, with state and local governments receiving $187.

Without the fuel tax, Utah’s roads and highways would quickly deteriorate, severely hampering mobility and commerce for every driver and business.  

So, it obviously would be patently unfair if some drivers routinely pay over $300 a year to maintain Utah’s highways, while other drivers using the roads, causing the same wear and tear, pay nothing.

But that would be the case unless a way exists to require owners of non-internal combustion engine vehicles, such as electric cars, to pay an equivalent fee so they pay their share of the cost of highway maintenance.  

Utah’s Department of Transportation is a national leader in determining the best methods to ensure long-term fairness in paying for critical road maintenance. Utah has a Road Usage Charge (RUC) program, mandated by the Legislature, that could eventually replace the fuel tax. The goal is not to increase the taxes drivers pay to maintain roads, but to ensure that all drivers pay their fair share.

This is a critical issue because while the percentage of electric vehicles on the highways today is small, that number is expected to grow quickly. California has banned the sale of new vehicles powered by gas and diesel after 2035. All major auto manufacturers are quickly ramping up production of affordable electric vehicles.

It is imperative that Utah and other states begin the process of creating innovative, next-generation methodology to replace the fuel tax and ensure smooth driving on the nation’s roads and highways.

Utah’s RUC program has much to commend it, and I congratulate Utah’s Legislature and UDOT for pushing it forward. It’s important to note that the program is entirely voluntary, allowing drivers of alternative fuel vehicles to participate, or pay a flat fee of $120 for electric vehicles. The $120 is significantly less than the $187 the average vehicle pays in Utah fuel taxes.

RUC participants sign up with a third-party (non-government) account manager that collects and reports miles driven via embedded telematics or in-vehicle technology provided by the account manager. Participants set up a pre-paid wallet from which mileage fees are periodically deducted. Payment of the 1.5 cents per-mile fee ends once the accumulated total for the year is equal to the annual flat fee. Thus, no one ever pays more than the $120 flat fee.

Complete privacy and security are ensured and the per-mile user charge is modest, less than what gas vehicles are paying on a per-mile average.

The U.S. Senate recently passed a bi-partisan infrastructure bill that includes a provision establishing a national RUC program and supporting state RUC efforts. This is an important step forward.

We are concerned about the many exaggerations, misconceptions and outright falsehoods about RUC programs. These misconceptions range from RUC being an additional “tax on driving” to claims about privacy concerns and governments spying on drivers.

These things are simply not true. Both states and the federal government are setting up programs that could eventually replace the fuel tax, not add another tax on top of it. And during the transition, these programs, like Utah’s, are ensuring that drivers of alternative fuel vehicles won’t pay more than the average driver of a gas or diesel-powered vehicle. 

RUC programs use safe technology that is far less intrusive of privacy and security than the routine actions of myriad on-line retailers and social media companies that track web browsing habits, financial transaction and locations, and sell the data. RUC data and transactions will be absolutely shielded and protected, more secure than purchasing an item from Amazon.

The reality is that if we want our roads and highways to be well-maintained, we must make this transition over the next decade or so. The fuel tax is a dying tax and the danger is that electric vehicle owners will not pay their fair share of highway maintenance costs.

And there is plenty of time to do it carefully and correctly. Utah and other states are doing just that. Utah’s Legislature and UDOT have been wise and farsighted in establishing a Road Usage Charge program.