By Guy Page
A Conservation Law Foundation op-ed in the Oct. 6 Rutland Herald reports on a Vermont Public Utilities Commission workshop aimed at getting more Vermonters to drive electric cars. CLF recommends the state of Vermont and Vermonters drive more electric cars, in response to climate change. A few thoughts on CLF’s conclusions.
CLF makes several relevant, accurate points: electric car range is improving; some plug-ins now have a 200-mile range, almost equal to some gasoline-driven cars. And their clean-air advantage is important and undeniable. But it errs in several other areas.
As CLF notes, electric cars are cheaper to fuel than internal-combustion vehicles. But CLF fails to say that plug-in electric cars are freeloaders on the state’s highways. The state of Vermont taxes gasoline and diesel fuel to build and maintain the state’s roads. Every time you and I fill up our gas or diesel tanks, we’re also filling up the Highway Fund. Plug-in electric cars pay no comparable tax. And it’s not like they haven’t been asked. Every year someone in the Legislature says, “make electric cars pay their own way.” And every year the renewable power industry and other voices say ‘no way, they’re already expensive. If you make them more expensive, people won’t buy them.’ And they get their way.
This is fundamentally unfair. Electric car drivers use the roads and they should help pay for them. They can pay at the charging station, or they can pay an annual mileage tax at inspection or point of sale, but either way they should pay like the rest of us.
Until that inequity is resolved, the ‘free ride’ enjoyed by electric car owners — many of them quite wealthy — will be just another example of poor and middle class Vermonters subsidizing the right-thinking affluent. Like carbon taxation and solar power subsidies, electric car freeloading is resented as economic injustice in the name of environmental progress.
Also, CLF errs when it claims the federal government will “roll back” mileage requirements. The Trump EPA wants to increase required MPG by 28 percent in 2021.
More specifically, the Trump administration plans to stick to the Obama plan of raising the blended (city/highway) new car mileage standard from the current 29 MPG to 37 MPG in 2021. That’s already far above Vermont’s preference for 25-30 MPG fuel-efficient all-wheel drive vehicles, such as the unofficial “state car,” the Subaru. Vermont car owners — including Rep. Peter Welch, who reportedly drives a Subaru — will be hard-pressed to meet that target. It’s true that the Trump administration has waived the 2025 target of about 47 MPG, but for good reason as far as Vermonters are concerned: safety.
My nephew is a car geek. He sells Volkswagens in Connecticut and can tell you everything about every car on the road — just ask him. On our way back from a Yankee Stadium road trip a couple of weekends ago, sitting behind the wheel of a new VW Atlas SUV, he turned to me and said, “I don’t know why any driver above the Mason-Dixon Line would drive anything but an all-wheel drive vehicle.”
He’s got a point, and so does the Trump administration: right now, the 47 MPG electric cars are just not as safe to drive-as my Honda CR-V. When it’s snowing and the roads are icy, do you want your teenager driving a two-wheel drive electric compact, or an all-wheel drive SUV? So far, there are no AWD cars getting 47 MPG.
There’s a reason why 10 of the 11 most popular cars and light trucks in Vermont are either AWD or 4WD. In Vermont, most 2WD cars just don’t pass the white knuckle test. Until the market delivers a selection of affordable, all-wheel drive plug-in electric cars, Vermonters can be forgiven for choosing their family’s survival over making a miniscule reduction to global emissions. Vermont is the state that restricted gun rights because of a school shooting that didn’t happen. Priorities don’t get much higher than child safety.
Vermonters concerned about the carbon threat can buy an electric car, if they want. They can also use alternate transportation, car pool, bike, walk. They can keep their furnace tuned. They can support existing Canadian and New England hydro and nuclear plants against the renewable power and fossil fuels lobby that would see shut them down. They can lease peak-shaving home batteries from GMP at $10 per month. The number of climate-saving choices is endless, and information is as close as a Google search.
Vermonters should not be forced to pay the pothole bill for electric car drivers. And they shouldn’t be denied the right to purchase a Vermont-safe car deemed MPG-deficient by the federal government. For people who fret that Vermonters will make the “wrong” choices, the good news is that the market will likely soon deliver an electric car so affordable, safe and reliable that its owners won’t mind paying the road tax and concerned mothers and fathers won’t mind sending their teenager off to school in a snowstorm.
And when the market finally delivers such a vehicle, the State of Vermont won’t need workshops or advertising campaigns or subsidies to get Vermonters to buy electric. We’ll buy them for the best reason of all: because we want them.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.