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Guest opinion: Middle- and low-income Utahns bear disproportionate share of cost to fund roads

By Eliza Diener - | Sep 19, 2023

Courtesy photo

Eliza Diener

Utah’s middle- and low-income citizens bear a disproportionate share of the cost to fund Utah’s roads. With the recent surge in hybrid and electric vehicles in the car market, the current road funding legislation is outdated. Historically, our primary source of revenue for funding Utah’s public roads has been the motor-fuel tax. Until now, this approach has ensured that road costs were distributed according to road usage: The more one utilized the roads, the more gasoline they consumed, and consequently, the more tax they contributed to maintain the roads. However, the rise of electric and hybrid cars means that not all vehicle owners contribute to this tax anymore.

Both federally and at the state level, hybrid and electric vehicle sales are set to soar. President Biden’s 2021 executive order aims for 50% of vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric. If these projections hold true for Utah, electric vehicles will make up half of all new car sales within a decade, potentially meaning half of all new car buyers won’t pay the fuel tax. This is concerning, considering that Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan estimates that the total transportation need for the next 30 years is well beyond what is being generated by the current system and proposed additional funding.

Electric and hybrid vehicles are primarily owned by higher-income Utahns, while middle- and low-income residents continue to drive gas-powered vehicles and shoulder the tax burden. This means that those who can’t afford electric vehicles end up financing the roads that everyone uses.

To address this issue, we need legislation that requires all citizens, not just those who own gas-only vehicles, to contribute to public road maintenance. In response to this need, Utah has implemented fees for the purchase and registration of electric or hybrid vehicles, as well as a road user charge. However, these fees amount to less than half of what gas vehicle owners pay in motor-fuel tax, based on average mileage and gas prices over the past three years. This still leaves a substantial disparity in contribution to infrastructure funding.

As the hybrid and electric vehicle market grows, we must find a fair way to fund our roads. One solution is to base road usage on mileage driven instead of gasoline purchases. These options would include a one-time vehicle lifetime fee at the time of purchase, an annual flat fee or a fee based on the previous year’s mileage. However, these may not account for miles driven outside of Utah. Alternatively, we could consider increasing the prevalence of toll roads.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

A gasoline pump is shown at a gas station Friday, June 10, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

Many states employ toll roads that collect fees electronically from users, ensuring that those who utilize the toll roads are the ones who fund them. Although Utah currently has only one toll road, building additional toll booths and gantries may be feasible, as a 2012 study by the IBTTA indicated that the cost of building and collecting tolls is comparable to collecting the gas tax. However, profitability would depend on assessing Utah’s transportation infrastructure to determine suitable road candidates. Notably, Utah’s major interstate, I-15, is federally funded as a national interstate and cannot accommodate state-operated tolls.

In any case, it’s clear that the motor-fuel tax should be phased out, as not all vehicles rely on motor fuel and it unfairly burdens middle- and low-income citizens. Utah must explore alternative solutions to keep our roads funded.

Eliza Diener is student in the Master of Social Work Program at the University of Utah.


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