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Lawmakers looking at new fees for clean fuel cars, raising price for express lane use

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FILE - Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, asks a question at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 08, 2017.

FILE - Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, asks a question at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 08, 2017.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns with alternative fuel vehicles should either pay a $225 annual fee or participate in a pilot program for a new type of transportation tax based on the miles they drive, a legislative committee co-chairman said Wednesday.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, co-chairman of the Legislature's Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee, said he intends to introduce the plan in the 2018 Legislature that begins meeting in late January.

"My hope is someday we'll have (a vehicle miles traveled tax) for all vehicles and not do away with the gas tax," Stephenson said, calling it a step toward replacing the $600 million now going to transportation on top of gas taxes and other user fees.

Utahns with so-called clean fuel cars would be getting a financial incentive to participate in an already planned pilot program for the vehicle miles traveled tax, he said, because the $225 fee would be based on driving 20,000 miles a year.

Those who drive their electric or other alternative fuel vehicles less and agree to an as-yet undetermined monitoring of their travel should look at the new source of revenue "not as big brother, but your way of paying for use of the road," Stephenson said.

After the meeting, he said it's time for the more than 9,000 vehicles in the state that don't use gas to contribute toward the cost of road maintenance. A state tax incentive for clean fuel vehicles ended in 2016 and has not been renewed.

"Everybody else is currently paying for the use of the roads," Stephenson said. "It's easier, I think, to implement something like this now when we have under 10,000 vehicles than it is when we have half a million."

That wasn't the only additional cost to the state's drivers that came up during the committee's nearly six-hour-long meeting. Stephenson also suggested that someday all Utahns should pay for mass transit along the Wasatch Front.

Matt Sibul, the Utah Transit Authority's director of government relations, told the committee the actual cost of each passenger trip on a bus, TRAX or FrontRunner train is about $7.30, not the $1 charged.

Later, Stephenson said extending what is now a local option tax for county residents serviced by UTA or other mass transit agencies throughout the state was not likely to happen anytime soon.

During the meeting, Stephenson also pressed the Utah Department of Transportation about why officials weren't willing to consider a higher increase in the maximum toll rate for single-occupancy vehicles to use the express lane.

The maximum high-occupancy vehicle lane toll charged during rush hour along the Salt Lake and South Valley zones is $1, about 10 cents a mile. UDOT Deputy Director Shane Marshall said the agency wants to double that toll for solo drivers.

Marshall said the change is intended to curb the number of single-occupancy vehicles that sometimes clog the express lane and encourage even more drivers to carpool so they can use the designated lane for free.

The proposal from UDOT does not have any impact on the 6,650 drivers of alternative fuel vehicles who have special permits to use the express lane without charge, Marshall said, although that program will remain capped.

Stephenson, who earlier in the meeting had brought up plans to draft legislation for the 2018 Legislature to impose a new fee on alternative fuel vehicles, said they're not causing the congestion.

But he said UDOT needs to look at alternatives that include requiring at least three people in a car or truck rather than just two to qualify as a high-occupancy vehicle exempt from tolls or raising the solo driver toll even higher.

"You ought to be using it as a revenue stream if the market bears it," he said, calling the tolls an option for drivers on their own to buy their way out of freeway congestion.

Marshall said about 20 percent of the drivers using the express lanes are violating the law, and about the same number are by themselves and paying the toll, while the rest are carpooling.

After the meeting, Stephenson, the head of the pro-business Utah Taxpayers Association, expressed more frustration with UDOT's attitude toward drivers willing to pay tolls.

"Why not let them make a market choice rather than, 'Oh, we're all living in the socialized congestion,'" he said, suggesting that the fee be $5 or more, or that there be a second express lane.