Support the news
Keeping up with road repair — and finding funds to pay for it — is a struggle for many states, particularly in places where winter weather takes a toll on highways and streets. Wisconsin's transportation department faces a deficit and is looking for ways to raise $750 million over the next two years. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Susan Bence of Milwaukee Public Radio reports on one part of the plan that's creating a stir: an additional fee for owners of of electric and hybrid cars.
Chris and Ellie Eichman’s electric car gleams — even on this overcast day — in the backyard of the modest home they share with their nine-month old daughter.
They did tons of research before deciding to purchase a Nissan Leaf in 2012. It was the first sold in Wisconsin. And it’s just one of the Eichman’s “sustainable” investments: 12 solar panels span the garage roof; their second car is a Prius.
If Wisconsin’s governor and legislature give the transportation budget a thumbs up, the Eichmans would pay an annual transportation fee — $50 for the Prius, another $50 for the Leaf.
A flat fee really doesn’t take into account that we chose these cars because they’re energy efficient and we purposely don’t drive as much.Chris Eichman
Chris Eichman says paying a fee for his electric vehicle is reasonable.
"I mean, I’m not paying gas, so I’m not supporting the roads through the standard gas tax, so I think that makes sense," he explains.
But being hit with a fee for his hybrid grinds him the wrong way because he already pays a gas tax every time he fills up.
"A flat fee really doesn’t take into account that we chose these cars because they’re energy efficient and we purposely don’t drive as much," he says. "And I don’t think it takes into account all the rest of people in the state who drive a standard car — or even the less efficient cars that just pollute more."
Ellie Eichman calls these troubling times for families trying to live sustainably.
"It’s not unreasonable to be unhappy with the current situation, because I don’t think you want to disincentivize sustainability," she says.
Arguments in support of the hybrid and electric vehicle fee
But Mark Gottlieb, who heads Wisconsin's transportation department, disagrees.
"So the hybrid owners ask me, 'Well, I drive a hybrid car, you’re taking away all my incentive to do a good thing,'" he said at a Chamber of Commerce gathering in Milwaukee. "No we’re not, we’re not!"
"Alternative fuel vehicles are great for our environment, great for the pocketbook of the people who own them and so forth," Gottlieb said, defending his proposed hybrid tax. "But we have a user fee-based system of transportation and it is largely focused on this fuel tax and it is not fair, it is inequitable for some people to escape that, because again, you’re putting the same demand on the system that everybody else is."
If you’re getting a $50 fee for a hybrid vehicle, you are still getting a bargain for the road infrastructure system we have.John Gard
John Gard didn’t spearhead the electric and hybrid fee idea, but he supports it. He heads a growing coalition that includes road builders and labor — the state towns and counties associations recently came on board. Gard says coalition members want to help cultivate long term revenue streams to maintain Wisconsin’s roads and bridges.
"Anybody who as a vehicle on the road whether it’s a motorcycle, car or truck has some obligation in our opinion to help fund," he says. "If you’re getting a $50 fee for a hybrid vehicle, you are still getting a bargain for the road infrastructure system we have.
Voices against the green vehicle fee
David Hunt with Clean Wisconsin is among a chorus of environmental groups calling a hybrid fee a “precedent setter” in the wrong direction.
"The right direction would be looking at ideas that could potentially take more cars off the road and remove fuel consumption as a source of revenue," he explains.
If Wisconsin takes the hybrid fee path, it won’t be the first state to do so. Hunt says Nebraska has already signed on, along with Colorado, North Carolina and Washington. Virginia repealed the tax it briefly imposed in 2013.
In Virginia, Hunt explains, "it was a bipartisan vote to repeal it and part of what happened there is you had a very large public uprising about the unfairness of taxing hybrid owners differently than other people who are out of the road."
There can't be anyone more "into" the hybrid movement than Bradlee Fons; he co-founded the 1,500-member Milwaukee Hybrid Owners Club.
It's the largest in the country, but even still, Fons says he doesn't have the resources to take on Wisconsin's proposed fee on hybrid cars, which he calls "senseless."
"We’re all part of the problem with regards to our environment," he says. "What we’ve done to it, what we will do to it. My son is now 26 years old and ... what we’re leaving younger people now is worse than what our parents gave to us, so I have a personal investment in trying to something."
Governor Scott Walker is expected to submit his budget to the state legislature in the coming weeks. If the hybrid fee is folded into the final plan, Wisconsin will buck the trend of 37 states that offer incentives to go hybrid.
This segment aired on January 5, 2015.