SALT LAKE CITY — With the new year comes a new way for Utah to start capturing money for state roads and to maybe someday phase out the gas tax — and it’s starting with electric and hybrid vehicles.

On New Year’s Day, Utah became only the second state in the U.S., after Oregon, to roll out an ongoing and fully operational “road user charge” program that users can opt in to pay for the miles they drive measured by a device in their car.

The 2020 program begins with owners of electric and hybrid vehicles registered in Utah, meant to test fair ways to capture money for state roads as the gas tax loses its power with the advancement of electric car technology, said Carlos Braceras, director of the Utah Department of Transportation.

“We’re falling behind right now, and so this is preparing for the future,” Braceras told the Deseret News.

“We believe in the next 15 to 20 years, the gas tax is losing its connection from the amount of people who use the roads,” he said. “That’s a key principle we believe in Utah — we believe people should pay for what they use, and people will make better decisions if they understand the impacts of their use.”

And for this year’s program, there’s only financial upsides for volunteers who opt in, Braceros said. They can only save.

That’s because the choice for electric and hybrid vehicles is to either pay a flat annual fee as part of their registration (which is increasing in 2020 and 2021), or to volunteer for the road user charge program to pay for the miles they drive as they go — charges that won’t exceed the flat annual fee.

“We understand there’s a lot for us to learn, so we want people to sign up and experience it,” Braceras said. “So we wanted to make sure if they choose to participate, it’s not going to cost more money if they just pay the flat fee.”

In 2020, the annual fees added onto registration for alternative fuel vehicles that dodge the gas tax will go up from $60 to $90 for all-electric vehicles, from $26 to $39 for plug-in hybrids, and $10 to $15 for gas hybrids. Those fees will hike again in 2021, to $120 for all-electric, $52 for plug-in hybrids, and $20 for gas hybrids.

John Miller, general manager of Mark Miller Toyota, prepares to charge his vehicle at the dealership in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. On New Year’s Day, Utah became only the second state in the U.S., after Oregon, to roll out an ongoing and fully operational “road user charge” program that electric and hybrid vehicle users can opt in to pay for the miles they drive measured by a device in their car. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

How Utah’s road user charge program works

Drivers of electric or hybrid vehicles who want to join the program should keep an eye out for a mailer with information about how to sign up. Those mailers are expected to begin hitting mailboxes this month, Braceras said, and will direct drivers to a new website (not yet launched) that will provide more information about how to sign up.

Participants will then be sent a device that plugs into the car’s diagnostics port — much like devices already used by insurance companies that provide discounts for safe drivers. The device will track mileage information to calculate the road user charge.

Participants will also place a credit card on file and set up a prepaid wallet from which mileage fees are deducted periodically. Per-mile payment will stop once the accumulated total for the year equals the capped flat fee, according to a UDOT fact sheet on the program.

The device will send mileage information for a third-party contractor, Emovis, to track the fee, so government won’t have the tracking information.

“One of the principles we understand is privacy, and so we didn’t want people to even perceive that big government is tracking where they go,” Braceras said. “That’s not of interest to us.”

Still, if people are concerned about privacy, they may opt for a short-term data retention or to just pay the flat fee.

Why Utah is trying the road user charge

The aim of the annual fees and the road user charge is to implement a system based on “fairness,” Braceras said, to ensure drivers of alternative fuel vehicles are still paying for the roads they’re driving on and wearing down.

“We have to fund the roads somehow,” Braceras said. “We’re all for clean air and clean vehicles — we think that’s definitely the future for us ... but if I drive 10 miles I should pay for 10 miles.”

Owners of green vehicles, even with the new program, will also tend to pay less than most other Utah drivers. For a truck that gets 15 mpg, federal gas taxes, state gas taxes and the general cost of gas equals about $3,109 a year, UDOT estimates. For a car that gets about 20 mpg, that’s about $2,331 a year. For a gas hybrid car that gets about 50 mpg, that cost, including the hybrid fee, is estimated at about $952 a year. For an all-electric vehicle, including the cost of electricity and hybrid fee, the annual cost is about $595 a year.

Of Utah’s nearly 2.6 million registered vehicles in 2019, roughly 2%, or nearly 52,000, are all-electric, plug-in hybrids, gas hybrids or other alternative fuel vehicles, according to UDOT. Between 2015 and 2019, electric vehicles saw 49% growth in registration while hybrid vehicles saw 14% growth in that same time frame.

“We have more and more drivers who are choosing alternative fuels, which is a great option for them, but they’re still using the roads,” said Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville. “So we need to have a way to have everybody pay for their use for what they actually drive.”

Harper sponsored legislation that directed UDOT to implement a road user charge program for alternative fuel vehicles by the start of 2020.

“I love giving people a choice, and this is just one more choice of how they choose how they drive and how they pay for impact on roads,” Harper said.

Harper said the program could pave the way for a similar program that could perhaps expand to other drivers, not just alternative fuel vehicles, as Utah aims to move away from relying on the gas tax and shift more to a user-based system.

“My hope is within a few years this program will be open up to most people in the state of Utah,” he said, adding that he envisions a program that might not require a device to track miles, but rather the option to simply report the number of miles driven each year.

That could also address privacy concerns of people who don’t wish to have a device in their car, he said.

“When we get to the point to just report the miles when you do the registration or something like that, then you don’t have to worry, you already get that autonomy,” Harper said. “There are ways to deal with privacy and respect, and that will be coming out in later version of the program.”