SALT LAKE CITY — Utah will be one of the first states in the country to charge electric and hybrid vehicle owners for the miles they drive under a voluntary program starting in January.
State lawmakers authorized the Utah Department of Transportation to collect a road usage charge as a way to make up for diminishing gas tax revenue.
"We know that gas tax will be eroded over time and we're just trying to be ahead of the game," said Teri Newell, UDOT deputy director, adding the number of electric cars in the state is small but growing.
"It's anybody's guess at what point they fully are into the market and it becomes a bigger issue, so we just want to be ready."
Currently, 89.5 percent of the 2.6 million registered vehicles in Utah run on gas, while 8.5 percent are diesel powered. Only 2 percent are electric, plug-in electric or hybrid, according to figures UDOT provided to the Transportation Interim Committee on Wednesday.
Newell said the program is an attempt to charge people for how much they use the roads.
"That's really the fairest way to do it. The gas tax used to be a good way to replicate that, but now we need to start thinking about moving on to something different," she said.
UDOT hopes to initially get 400 to 500 hybrid and electric vehicle owners to sign up for the program in January. The state would waive the annual flat fee for those vehicles and charge them 1.5 cents per mile driven. The per-mile charge would be capped to not exceed the annual fee, Newell said.
Some lawmakers are anxious to get the program going and even expand it to gas-powered vehicles or make it mandatory.
"How soon can we move to internal combustion engines?" asked Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, saying he supports user-based taxes. "I want to crawl, walk, run quickly."
Newell said UDOT would collect information over the next couple years before considering how to bring other vehicles into the program.
"It's kind of an unknown for a lot of people right now, and so we want to venture into it slowly and make sure we understand all the issues with it before we move into something like that," Newell told the committee.
The Utah Legislature appropriated $755,000 to set up the program and $115,000 a year to run it. The state also received a $1.25 million federal grant to study how the program works over the next five years.
Utah and Oregon are the only states that have programs in place, while other states are testing them.
Correction: An earlier version stated the charge for hybrid and electric vehicles would be .015 cents per mile. The charge would actually be 1.5 cents per mile.