The Green-Car Blues

They say virtue is its own reward. But some green-car owners seem to want a little more than that.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has drawn the fury of the environmentally minded by including in his transportation package a $100 annual fee on alternative-fuel vehicles, including electric cars and hybrids. The governor’s rationale is plain enough: People who use the roads should pay for them, but taxes on gasoline don’t adequately capture hybrids that burn less of it.

That didn’t persuade a group of hybrid owners who held a drive-in protest at the state capitol in late January. “We should be rewarding people for trying to do their part to stop the climate crisis and lower pollution,” said one. “We should be supporting people who want to (protect the environment,) not penalizing them,” said another.

Two Democratic lawmakers—Del. Scott Surovell and State Sen. Adam Ebbin—took so much offense at McDonnell’s proposal that they launched a petition website—NoHybridTax.com. Almost immediately, it collected more than 1,500 signatures, and by the time the legislators delivered it to the governor, it had more than 6,800. “The idea that we would tax people for being environmentally friendly is ridiculous,” Surovell said a few weeks ago.

This isn’t surprising. You might have noticed that some hybrid owners can be just a teensy bit self-righteous. According to a 2007 New York Times story, “The (Toyota) Prius has become, in a sense, the four-wheel equivalent of those popular rubber ‘issue bracelets’... it shows the world that its owner cares. In fact, more than half of the Prius buyers surveyed this spring by CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Ore., said the main reason they purchased their car was that ‘it makes a statement about me.’” As Surovell said when delivering the petition Monday, the signers see the hybrid-car fee as “a tax on virtue.”

Is the indignation about McDonnell’s green-car tax justified? To some degree, yes—but it is a smaller degree than his critics think.

The indignation is partially justified because hybrid cars still burn gasoline, and still pay taxes at the pump. In that regard they do not differ from traditional-engine cars that get good mileage—such as the Smart Fortwo, the Chevy Cruze or the Ford Fiesta. But McDonnell’s plan doesn’t tax those cars extra; it docks only alternative-fuel vehicles. As older gas-guzzlers fade away and newer vehicles built to higher mileage standards take over, that discrepancy will look odder and odder. (Indeed, increasing fuel economy—regardless of power source—is one reason many policy wonks argue for ditching the gasoline tax in favor of a GPS-based vehicle-mile fee.)

Furthermore, the hybrid-vehicle tax is set too high, at least based on Virginia’s current gasoline tax of 17.5 cents per gallon. At that rate, and assuming a motorist drives 15,000 miles a year, a standard-engine vehicle that gets 25 mph pays only $105 to the commonwealth. The same motorist driving a 50-mpg hybrid, meanwhile, pays $52.50 in gasoline taxes. To justify a $100 fee, he would have to drive an additional 28,000 miles — or get 525 miles to the gallon.

But there’s a flip side. First, some green-car drivers might be greatly overstating their environmental contribution. Hybrids, for instance, are scarcely more eco-friendly than other high-mpg vehicles on the road—and, according to some analyses, might actually be worse. There’s been a lot of debate about that. But even David Pogue, a technology writer for The New York Times who has hotly defended hybrids, will go no further than to say “the overall Prius environmental impact is, at worst, neutral, and at best, still positive.”

Meanwhile, fully electric cars inflict a host of hidden environmental costs, according to a study by Norwegian academics. Manufacturing is much more toxic, for example. It is also carbon-intensive: Building just one electric car produces 15 tons of CO emissions. Charging the battery produces still more—so the term “zero-emission vehicle” is quite a misnomer.

As Brian Palmer noted in The Washington Post last year, “coal is the most common source of electricity in the United States, and it emits 27 percent more carbon dioxide than oil, per unit of energy produced, by some calculations.” He cites a researcher at Carnegie Mellon who says electric vehicles are fine for places like Seattle, where hydroelectric plants generate much of the region’s juice. In coal country? They’re actually worse, at least for now. (Here in Virginia, coal and natural gas generate more than half the state’s electricity; nuclear power does most of the rest.)

All of this, however, ignores the main point: Even if green cars do confer tremendous ecological benefits, they still impose considerable costs on the transportation grid, just like everyone else. A bridge can’t tell whether it’s carrying electric cars or gasoline-powered ones; it wears out just as fast either way. Rush-hour traffic jams don’t miraculously dissipate when hybrid cars join them. You could wave a magic wand to make every car in Virginia a plug-in hybrid overnight, and the state’s transportation woes would not change a single bit. How much green cars really help the environment is an interesting question. But it has nothing to do with how much they use the roads.

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  • Almanian.!||

    A. Barton Hinkleheimerschmidt
    His name is my name, too!
    Whenever we go out people always shout,
    "There goes A. Barton Hinkle Heimerschmidt!"
    LALALALALALALA....

    Also, fried chicken.

  • Aresen||

    Get used to it, suckers.

    The roads gotta be paid for somehow.

    Of course, Real Liberals™ beleive the little people should take trains.

  • Paul.||

    Even turning off my disdain for these green boondoggles, I have no issue with this. If the issue is Roadz and their use, why is it unreasonable that the people driving on them pay their fair share?

  • Sevo||

    Tell that to the (entitled) bikers.

  • Paul.||

    They're doing it even in Seattle.

    And the Critical Mass crowd is P-I-S-S-E-D.

    http://seattletimes.com/html/l.....gexml.html

  • Generic Stranger||

    They're thinking about doing it in Portland, too. There's been much anguish and gnashing of hippy teeth on the local news station over it. I just laugh maniacally.

  • Farturo||

    Biker here. I'm not opposed to some sort of bicycle license that incurs a fee that reflects the cost of the infrastructure laid into place to accommodate the marginal additional cyclist.

    However, bicycles do almost zero damage to roadways and cause very little property damage of any other sort. The actual marginal cost to accommodate a cyclist on a roadway designed to withstand 18-wheeler traffic is approaching zero. Gas taxes go to pay for federal highway projects, not local roads, and bikes are prohibited on those highways, so no "fair share" needed there. Local roads are more likely to be funded by property and other local taxes, which cyclists ostensibly pay just like everyone else.

    Anyway, I'll gladly pay my cycle tax so that ignoramuses will shut their fat mouths, but I'd also advocate for a total do-over of the roadway/infrastructure funding system that more accurately reflects actual "fair share" in terms of infrastructure costs.

  • A Secret Band of Robbers||

    Everyone wants to be the marginal customer.

    In my town, we have a trail system complete with bridges and tunnels for bikes. The fact that it's paid for out of city sales taxes and nothing specific to bikers is considered a feature, not a bug.

  • Paul.||

    See my post below. It's not about damage to the roads, it's about the services they get. If you're a biker in a city who gets pushed into the shoulders with no specific considerations, fine. But if you're in a city which modifies its entire transportation infrastructure to be biking-centric, then you're costing money.

  • JakeJ||

    An automobile, pickup truck, or SUV does no more damage to the roads than a bicycle. There is well-known formula that covers this issue, which I'll link to below. But first, an analogy.

    Imagine a thick tree branch. Now imagine a fly (the bicycle), a robin (a car), and a squirrel (a pickup or SUV). None of them stresses the branch. But build, say, a tree fort on the one branch, and you might have a problem. That tree fort? Think of a bus or a semitruck.

    99% of all vehicle-related pavement damage is done by trucks and buses. The reason other vehicles pay road use taxes is because that's where the money is. The reason to tax bicycles is the same reason behind taxing cars, motorcycles, pickups, and SUVs.

    http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/...../ENG35.HTM

  • From the Tundra||

    I agree with you. It's actually kind of an interesting dilemma. Of course,simply removing all the bullshit subsidies would have the phony greenies back into dinosaur burners in a heartbeat. Problem solved.

  • Jordan||

    We wouldn't want to end up like Somalia, now would we? BECAUSE ROADZ!!11

  • tiffany267||

    OMG I love you. I think that's going to be my new mockery of all statist policies :D

  • Paul.||

    Speaking of the should-bikes-pay issue, someone on the Seattle Times website made a great point a few weeks ago. Speaking of Seattle specifically, who's appointed Transportation Chief is a former critical mass biking activist, in the last three years since McGinn has been elected, they've widened and transformed practically every major throroughfare in the city to include bike lanes. If I still cared about my Blog, I'd put up pictures. But it includes widening of existing roads down to restriping and repurposing lanes and shoulders. Millions have been spent, and they pay nothing. As a percentage, they get way more road service dedicated to their form of transportation than any other group in the city, period.

  • Paul.||

    who's = whose...damned preview...

  • Farturo||

    Why do you say that cyclists pay nothing? Do they not pay sales and property taxes just like everyone else who lives in Seattle? What taxes that go toward local road planning, construction, and maintenance are car drivers paying that cyclists aren't?

    "As a percentage, they get way more road service dedicated to their form of transportation than any other group in the city, period."

    How do you quantify that? What are the other "groups"? If there is a road with 1-2 car lanes and 1 bike lane (in both directions), how is that "way more road service" than that devoted to cars? And what about all the roads where bicycles are prohibited?

    I'll grant that the marginal cost to add bike lanes where there were none is probably quite high on a per-cyclist basis. However, with growing numbers of cyclists, the marginal cost will fall to well below that of what it costs to accommodate another passenger car.

  • Generic Stranger||

    What taxes that go toward local road planning, construction, and maintenance are car drivers paying that cyclists aren't?

    License and registration fees, for starters. Then there's gas taxes and parking permits. And like Paul has stated, there's been a shitload spent on bikers that they effectively have paid very little to nothing for, with most of the cost being born by car drivers.

  • Farturo||

    Odd to see libertarians supporting an argument with appeals to license and registration fees.

    Also parking permits - do you think that municipal/state parking permits, on net, actually cover the costs of parking infrastructure?

    How many cyclists do you think are also licensed drivers who possess and pay taxes on automobiles? They might also even have parking permits.

    Please show me this shitload spent on bicycle infrastructure that you speak of, and compare it in size to the shitloads spent on other expenses: http://www.seattle.gov/council/budget/

  • DJK||

    It's not all that odd to see a libertarian supporting this argument. We don't generally believe in free shit, remember? Someone has to pay for these services. In an ideal world, it would be the users of those services paying to a private entity. In the world we're stuck with, there's nothing wrong with user fees.

  • Farturo||

    I agree that the ideal solution to all this would be application of property rights, allowing the owners of the infrastructure to decide who to charge and how much.

    In the case of roads, purpose-specific taxes and fees (e.g. gas taxes and registration fees) do not cover the entire cost of roadway infrastructure. Some of that money comes out of general revenue streams from sales and property taxes, which both cyclists and drivers pay into (never forgetting the fact that most cyclists are also drivers). If you're using general tax powers to build infrastructure, deciding what infrastructure should be built is a subjective matter. Your opinion that all money should be put into automobile infrastructure is just as good as my opinion, which is that 2% of that money should go into bicycle infrastructure and you can have the other 98% for automobiles.

    In the meantime, I will be riding safely in the center of the only lane available to me, which I in part paid for, just like everyone else, with my sales taxes, property taxes, car registration, fuel taxes etc.

  • JakeJ||

    You're going to ride your bicycle in the middle of the traffic lane? All I can say is you'd better scan the street for witnesses, and keep all your insurance up to date.

  • entropy||

    How do you quantify that? What are the other "groups"? If there is a road with 1-2 car lanes and 1 bike lane (in both directions), how is that "way more road service"

    Because it's a fucking bike lane. Ride your bike in the goddamn park.

    There's all of like 15,000 of you hipster lance amstrong shitheads trying to give yourself ball cancer and millions of people in cars actually have places to go, and yet they give you road real estate for your bicycles. Hell why not a pogo stick lane?

    Anything not motor powered should be on the sidewalk. You want to ride bicycles on the road, move to Amish country.

  • entropy||

    Car lanes to bike lanes: 1-1 or 2-1.

    Cars to bikes that actually use them: 47,000-1.

  • Farturo||

    You are an idiot.

    And I'm fine with pogo sticks in the bike lane, it wouldn't bother me at all.

  • BlockadeRunnerX||

    As a Virginian and an owner of two hybrids, I'm getting hit by this, and yeah, while I've got my own self-interest at play here, I've got to say this is idiotic.

    For starters, Virginia has a "Car Tax" that is assessed every year. Since hybrid cars cost more than their non-hybrid counterparts, I'm already paying more for the privilege of saving on gasoline long-term.

    Secondly, my newish Ford Escape hybrid gets good mileage, but not as good as the car I drove for the past seven years -- the vaunted Hyundai Elantra.

    So I guess I was paying my "fair share" for road construction when I got 35 MPG. But now that I'm in a hybrid that gets 33MPG, I'm stealing.

    Here's an idea: pay for infrastructure with money confiscated via the gasoline tax. If you need more, raise the rate. Done and done.

  • entropy||

    I would prefer we just stop paying for roads altogether and everyone gets 4WD jeeps and dune buggies.

  • Farturo||

    These are all good points. On net, you might already be paying more taxes to VA than someone driving a non-hybrid of equivalent size, even though you are paying less in fuel taxes.

    Tying taxation to car value seems somewhat silly. My grandma might own a $50k Mercedes that is driven 1,200 miles a year, while a pizza delivery guy has a $1,200 Honda that gets driven 30,000 miles in a year. Grandma pays a huge amount of tax on the Benz, while Pizza Guy makes a huger amount of traffic.

    I think a more sensible tax system would combine annual mileage and gross vehicle weight (for passenger vehicles) into a single tax that better reflected actual use of the infrastructure.

  • JakeJ||

    Vehicle weight doesn't matter until the vehicle is very heavy.

  • Jose Chung||

    South Park did a fun episode about hybrids a while ago that I think everyone can anjoy :) http://www.southparkstudios.co.....smug-alert

  • tiffany267||

    I was more than a little disappointed with your assessment of Virginia's new policy. "Reason" usually offers much more meaningful conclusions about public policy :(

    (1) The key here is that it's a tax. All tax is theft. It doesn't matter WHO it steals from! Buying into the petty arguments of which group ought to be disfranchised ignores the big picture. NO ONE should be disfranchised. No taxes are legitimate.

    (2) Roads should not be owned or operated by the state to begin with! All roads, and all other forms of infrastructure, do not properly belong to "the public". Morally speaking, all "public" resources, other than the basic governmental institutions which defend individual rights, should be 100% privatized without further delay. Obviously we're lightyears from liberty right now, but that doesn't mean we should accept the idea that we "owe" the state for our transportation infrastructure.

    (3) Vehicles shouldn't have to be registered with the state. There is no compelling reason for a minimalist state to have any records about what type of vehicles I own. The state doesn't need to have any idea whether I drive a hybrid, or a conventional car, or an antique car, or a bicycle, or a camel.

    I'm sure that your article is an exception to the rule. As I said, Reason usually holds itself to a higher standard in support of liberty. As a rational individual, I implore you to please keep the basic principle of individual liberty as your highest value in your writing.

  • JakeJ||

    The ultimate solution is to either raise gas taxes or go to a per-mile tax, with deductions for fuel purchased out of state.

    As the owner of an electric vehicle that's driven entirely within my state, I don't object to paying road taxes. That's the price of having roads; nothing's free. But I use my vehicle only around town and the fee I'm charged amounts to 3.3 cents a mile, compared with 1.9 cents a mile charged to an equivalent gas car driven the same number of miles.

    I don't think government policy should be subsidizing my use of roads, but nor do I think I should be penalized for having an electric vehicle.

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