Will Illinois start charging electric car owners a road fee?

Illinois is one of 30 states that do not charge owners of electric and hybrid cars an annual fee to make up for lost motor fuel taxes, but that could change.

"If you're using the roads, you should be paying the same rate as everyone else," said Palatine Republican state Rep. Tom Morrison, who sponsored two scuttled bills in 2017 to increase registration fees for electric and some hybrid cars.

Morrison said he's committed to resurrecting at least one of the bills, which had bipartisan support, during the upcoming legislative session.

"Every year this goes by without charging these cars, we're digging the hole deeper," he said. "People should be able to drive what they want to drive, but the thing is we have to fund these roads somehow."

A report by the National Conference of State Legislatures showed 20 states - including Illinois neighbors Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin - charge annual fees ranging from $50 to $200.

"Each year we see a whole bunch of states consider it, and it's been a steady increase year over year," said Kristy Hartman, the NCSL's energy program manager and co-author of the report. "The main driver for these fees is looking for equity and fairness for all drivers. Some states are getting less than $1,000 in revenue from it."

One of Morrison's bills would have increased the electric car registration from its current $17.50 annual fee to match the $101 registration fee traditional car owners pay. According to the Illinois secretary of state, 8,031 electric cars are registered in Illinois, so the increase would amount to a little more than $670,000 a year.

His other bill would charge electric car owners $216 annually - more than gas-powered cars - which would generate an additional $1.6 million annually.

Morrison said that amount is meant to raise the registration fee plus charge owners of electric cars the amount they would have paid in motor fuel taxes traveling 15,000 miles a year at 25 miles per gallon.

The second bill would also charge owners of "plug-in hybrid electric motor vehicles" an additional $57 a year. Officials in the secretary of state's office said there are more than 180,000 hybrid vehicles of different types in the state but estimated less than a quarter of those would be affected by this legislation. For instance, a Toyota Prius would not be subject to the additional fee.

Critics say the revenue from the proposed fees is not enough to be worth ending incentives for car buyers who go green by purchasing electric and hybrid cars. At most, they say, it would add about $2 million to the state's road maintenance fund, which would amount to less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the state's annual motor fuel tax revenue.

"Anybody that suggests taxing electric vehicles is going to solve the gas tax problem is not doing the math," said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. "These bills are just a penalty to electric vehicle owners."

Advocates for the fees believe electric and hybrid car owners are getting enough incentives already. Federal tax credits for the vehicles range from $3,000 to $7,500. But Illinois stopped offering rebates because of its money woes.

The fee hike is considered an alternative to the vehicle mile tax, which taxes motorists on the miles they drive rather than on the amount of gas consumed. It became a hot-button issue in the gubernatorial election when departing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner criticized Democratic Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker for supporting the initiative. Pritzker floated the idea at a Daily Herald editorial board meeting but later clarified he never suggested it as a formal plan.

"The state has seen motor fuel tax revenues decline, so legislators are recognizing it's an issue they need to get a handle on," said Kevin Burke, executive vice president of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association, a lobbying organization for road builders.

Steve Dudek, a Tesla owner from Streamwood, said he wouldn't mind paying the same registration fee as others but that people shouldn't be penalized for having an electric car. He called the vehicle mile tax "a bad idea."

"Then you add a whole layer of bureaucracy to monitor it," he said.

Others have suggested increasing the motor fuel tax rate, which hasn't increased from 19 cents per gallon since 1990 even as cars have become more fuel-efficient. The diesel rate is 21.5 cents per gallon.

In 2017, the state generated $1.28 billion in motor fuel taxes, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. That's down more than $100 million from what the state received in 2007, according to state financial reports. However, the state has been seeing an uptick in motor fuel tax revenue for the past five years.

Walling said the state needs to invest money it receives from electric car owners in infrastructure like charging stations to encourage more electric car purchases.

Illinois is the only state facing pushback on electric car fees. The NCSL report noted Oklahoma had passed such a fee, but it was struck down by the state's Supreme Court.

Tax Illinois drivers by the mile?

What Pritzker said about a mileage tax in January

Pritzker: Expanding gambling for road funds worth a look, but mileage tax too experimental

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