Opinion

A yellow light on Washington’s electric car revolution

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee stands next to the driver's-side door of a Tesla Model X 75D semi-autonomous electric vehicle before taking it for a test-drive in January. Inslee was highlighting the state's role in the testing and development of autonomous vehicle technology and to tout the environmental and safety benefits of the vehicles.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee stands next to the driver's-side door of a Tesla Model X 75D semi-autonomous electric vehicle before taking it for a test-drive in January. Inslee was highlighting the state's role in the testing and development of autonomous vehicle technology and to tout the environmental and safety benefits of the vehicles. AP file photo

Gov. Jay Inslee sounds a bit like President Franklin Roosevelt when he preaches the virtues of electrification. But while FDR delivered electricity to Depression-era rural America via the Tennessee Valley Authority, Inslee pushes to dramatically grow electric car usage in Washington with the zeal of a tub-thumping evangelist.

If the governor reaches his goal, 50,000 electric vehicles will operate on state roads by the time his second term wraps up in 2020. To that end, he recently announced a $1 million investment in EV infrastructure: 15 new charging stations along heavily traveled stretches of five highways, ensuring drivers can plug in every 30 to 50 miles.

This is welcome news for EV users and low-carbon cheerleaders around the South Sound, as charging stations are planned for Lacey, Tacoma and Federal Way.

And yet the renewable energy party needs to come with a caveat: Though an EV is cleaner than a gas-fueled car or hybrid, it causes similar wear and tear on pavement and occupies as much space in gridlocked traffic.

Washington’s vehicle tax and fee structure must be updated, and there’s little time to waste.

Few things get Inslee more amped up than talking about a new electric-car initiative — like last fall, when he said Washington would double the number of EVs in the state government motor pool.

“Our state is proud to lead on electric vehicle usage because these investments will save money, protect public health and secure our long-term future,” Inslee said in November.

Indeed, the internal combustion engines that dominate our roadscape emit roughly half the carbon pollution in Washington. And lest you think this is a partisan issue, a group of state lawmakers known as the Electric Vehicle Caucus (which locally includes Reps. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, and Jake Fey, D-Tacoma) has advocated an array of EV incentives.

Cutting the cord on fossil fuels is a laudable ambition, as long as they’re equally committed to ending a fossilized reliance on traditional fuel taxes.

By 2035, the state Transportation Commission projects gas tax revenues will plunge by 45 percent per mile driven, due to exponential growth in EVs and fuel-efficient cars. Raising the gas tax, already the nation’s second-highest, is not a formula for long-term success. Nor is the state’s nominal $150 annual fee on electric cars.

Transportation officials are taking good first steps with a pay-per-mile experiment set to start in January. You can help by joining 2,000 volunteers consenting to track their mileage and pay a proposed “fee” of 2.4 cents per mile, in lieu of gas tax. (It’s just a simulation; you’ll actually keep paying at the pump.)

There are kinks to work out, such as privacy concerns and payment from out-of-state drivers. But it’s vital for Washington to move beyond pilot projects and implement a real road-usage charge as soon as possible.

It’s also prudent to regularly reexamine the sweeteners given to EV buyers. Washington offers a sales tax break on the first $32,000 of the price on a qualifying new electric car, including (as of last year) some luxury models. This exemption is set to phase out in 2019 — sooner if sales zoom ahead of schedule. Lawmakers should resist the temptation to keep extending it.

Transportation funding inequities are just one way consumer behaviors no longer match Washington’s tax system. To their credit, leaders in Olympia this year adopted a controversial tax on Internet commerce to address big shifts in retail shopping habits.

They must show equal boldness with regard to driving trends. Or else the electric-vehicle party may soon give way to a hangover.

  Comments