Paying for Roads in an Electric World

May 14, 2021 4 min read

Orange barrels in a construction zone or a pothole in the street are my only road maintenance reminders. I usually curse the bump in the road and go about my day. My car gets more brain space. I'm directly responsible for its insurance and maintenance, and I buy gas to make it go. Maybe my next car will be plugged in to get charged.

President Biden's American Jobs Plan includes establishing an infrastructure for electric vehicles. His proposed actions will "accelerate deployment to make driving an electric vehicle convenient in every part of the country," he says. However, Dr. Devon McAslan, a researcher at the Arizona State University School for the Future of Innovation Society, says, "One of the big concerns is as the transportation system electrifies, any revenue from the gas tax to help fund roads will go away."

President Biden foresees a nationwide network of 500,000 charging stations as well as incentives like rebates and tax breaks for purchasing electric vehicles. His plan talks a lot about infrastructure, but no one seems to agree on what infrastructure includes or who's going to pay for it.

The Highway Trust Fund — which is funded through gas taxes and things like sales tax on heavy truck purchases — accounts for one-quarter of public spending on roads and highways. State and local governments foot the rest of the bill, and McAslan says that "At some point we're going to be forced to think of new ways to fund transportation."

Some states already charge annual fees for zero-emissions vehicles in an attempt to recoup lost gas taxes. However, roadway pricing is also a possible solution. This doesn't mean more toll roads. It means drivers pay per mile their car travels. McAslan thinks a transition to a system like this would be good because it might "make people realize how much as a society ... we subsidize driving."

Both driving and public transportation are heavily subsidized, but drivers are either unaware of that or OK with government support of personal transport. People get upset when states start talking about toll roads and bridges. Ironically, these tend to be the same people who think public transit should be self-sustaining. It's not, and it never has been.

If drivers become more directly responsible for the roads they travel, they could be more likely to use public transportation. If I could pay $2 to ride a bus or light rail and keep the mileage down on my personal vehicle, which would then keep my travel tax low, that could be a win-win. The biggest complaint against public transportation is that it struggles to compete with the door-to-door time efficiency of a personal vehicle, but that's a logistics problem that good city planning can address.

McAslan is also quick to point out that "Driving is the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses in the US right now." An infrastructure that supports electric vehicles and shifts how we pay for our roads and bridges may be just the thing that inspires more people to consolidate trips, limit their driving and opt for mass transit. It's a real opportunity to reduce our collective carbon footprint.

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a wife, mother and award-winning columnist. She is the media director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Find her on social media @WriterBonnie, or email her at [email protected] To find out more about Bonnie Jean Feldkamp and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: Mikes-Photography at Pixabay

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