By John McClaughry
The red hot policy issue in the state right now is S.5, the (un)Affordable Heat bill passed by the Democratic supermajority in the House and Senate. Gov. Phil Scott vetoed it last Thursday.
Largely out of sight, the annual transportation bill (H.479) has easily passed both chambers and is now the subject of a committee of conference to negotiate the final version, which should appear this week.
The theme of this bill indicates how “climate change” has become its leading concern, inasmuch as transportation is the leading cause (40%) of carbon dioxide emissions. The bill contains a great deal of spending to retard climate change while avoiding politically dangerous ideas like driving up heating fuel prices to reduce thermal emissions (S.5).
Consider Sec. 2: “This act includes the State’s fiscal year 2024 transportation investments intended to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, reduce fossil fuel use, and save Vermont households money in furtherance of the policies articulated in 19 V.S.A. § 10b [overall transportation policies] and the goals of the Comprehensive Energy Plan and the Vermont Climate Action Plan and to satisfy the Executive and Legislative Branches’ commitments to the Paris Agreement climate goals.”
The Vermont Climate Action Plan, issued in 2021 by the Vermont Climate Council, contains literally hundreds of recommendations for steps Vermonters must take to look like we are somehow defeating climate change.
The Paris Agreement of 2015 demanded that the 194 participating nations take sweeping steps to achieve the same objective, mainly by curbing carbon dioxide emissions. After six years practically none of those nations are complying.
In any case, the Transportation Plan, in addition to the usual selection and adjustment of bridge and highway projects, contains millions of dollars of new spending aimed at getting people out of internal combustion vehicles, getting them into electric vehicles, and luring them into bike paths, public transit and even passenger rail.
Installing DC Fast Charging stations for electric vehicles remains popular, with the hope that highway users will adjust to entering a charging station only to find three other cars impatiently waiting for a working charger to become available.
There are more subsidies for buyers of EVs, some of which will be very deep to ensure that many more lucky people with incomes up to $100,000 will “benefit from electric driving, including Vermont’s most vulnerable.”
There’s a Carbon Reduction Formula Program, a Mileage Smart program, a Complete Streets Program, and the Replace Your Ride program which pays you to scrap your gasoline powered car and find some other way to get around.
There has to be some serious tension between drivers, especially in the business sector, who want safe, smooth, and well-maintained highways and bridges, and the Climate Council enthusiasts who argue that spending money to achieve safe, smooth, and well-maintained highways and bridges just encourages more car, van, bus and truck travel, using more gasoline and diesel fuel and even more electricity.
This is not to say that any of these programs is actually harmful. The question is whether it makes sense to shower tax dollars on them at the expense of the highways and bridges that have been the state’s transportation policy goal for the past hundred years.
One sore point raised by the EV promotion campaign is the fact that the fuel taxes that support the Transportation Fund are entirely paid by internal combustion vehicles. What happens in the not so distant future when almost all gas and diesel powered vehicles, along with their motor fuel taxes, are required to disappear?
So far the climate-conscious legislature has refused to shift any of that burden to EVs, arguing that it’s an obstacle to the desperate need to get 170,000 EVs on the roads by 2030 as recommended by the Climate Council. (The present number of EVs on the road is around 9,000.)
This bill creates the machinery for producing a radical solution: the Mileage Based User Fee. In this scheme, there will be no more fuel tax at the pump. Instead, drivers will pay a tax on miles driven between odometer readings at annual inspections. If you drive to Florida, you’ll pay Vermont for the miles you drove in eleven other states. Tourists who now pay 20% of gas taxes at Vermont pumps ($78 million) won’t be taxed at all.
Alternatively, GPS satellite tracking of your onboard transponder will add up the number of miles your vehicle is driven in the state, and the state will levy a user fee on the total. That of course would mean that the government will have a complete record of where you’ve driven, when you’ve driven, and how fast you’ve driven. You might call it Big Brother in the Sky.
MBUF is two years off.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.