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Electric vehicles solve transportation and pollution problems. Don’t make them harder to own

Electric cars are parked at charging stations as Packsize International in Salt Lake City becomes the largest electric vehicle charger installation in Utah on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah continues to face challenges of aging infrastructure, development and a growing population, all of which seriously impact air quality and climate, and require robust and immediate actions.

Last year, with the completion of Utah’s Roadmap, the Utah Legislature momentously agreed to an investment of $50 million into electric vehicle infrastructure, a priority echoed in Gov. Spencer Cox’s proposed budget. Electric vehicles are a powerful tool for addressing our air quality challenges as they don’t produce the harmful tailpipe emissions that have a serious impact on public health.

This session, a bill has been proposed (HB209) that would seriously undermine this recent, important investment. Rather than helping alleviate obstacles to electric vehicle use, this bill would take a step backward by significantly increasing the cost of owning an electric vehicle.

HB209 would increase the registration fees for electric vehicles and plug-in electric hybrids so much that for some of our drivers they would be paying the highest registration fees on electric vehicles in the country. When similarly high fees were enacted in Georgia, the electric vehicle market plummeted by 83%.

One of the reasons stated for running the bill is to make electric vehicle owners pay their “fair share” toward the costs of maintaining our roads — compared to the revenue the state derives from the gasoline tax. But the bill ignores the higher contribution that electric vehicle owners have already paid in the form of sales tax into state coffers, as electric vehicles are often more expensive to purchase than their traditional gasoline-powered counterparts.

The bill does not address our larger problem of transportation funding. The truth is that no drivers today in Utah are paying their “fair share” toward the upkeep of our roads. The gas tax has slowly been falling farther from covering the full amount needed to maintain our roads. That shortfall is currently $600 million per year and is expected to increase as gasoline-powered vehicles continue to become more fuel efficient. We need long-term solutions to address this, such as moving toward a road usage charge for all or equally increased registration fees for all drivers, not just those who drive cleaner vehicles.

Successfully transitioning to broader usage of electric vehicles would create major health benefits that come from improved air quality. Air pollution impacts all who breathe it and increases the risk of health problems such as asthma, decreased lung function, heart attacks, strokes and shortened lifespans.

We have made improvements in recent years in our winter air pollution but still have a significant way to go with our unhealthy levels of summer ozone. Electric vehicles can make a difference in this effort, but they only make up 0.5% of the total registered vehicles in Utah right now. We need to be helping, not hindering, the adoption of these vehicles and waiting until there is a higher market penetration in the state before doling out higher fees. There will be significant improvements to our air if we can get to the point in which electric vehicles are more affordable, widely adopted and have ample charging infrastructure.

Imposing the high fees envisioned in HB209 discourages the purchase of clean vehicles and disregards the state’s investments in electric vehicle infrastructure. Legislation of this nature should only be pursued at the same time as arriving at a more comprehensive solution to our transportation infrastructure funding problems, and only when electric vehicles have become an established transportation option. HB209 is a step in the wrong direction for Utah. Discussions on this bill must continue so that we find alternative solutions that prioritize our health, clean air and smart infrastructure solutions.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, and Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, are both medical doctors and the co-chairs of the bipartisan Legislative Clean Air Caucus.