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Fess up, hybrid owners. You know this deal's too good to last. Drivers of hybrid and all-electric cars have been basically getting a free ride on America's highways and byways. But the good times are about to stop rolling.

In Washington, attempts to pass a new highway bill are stalled more or less permanently despite the best efforts of the concrete lobby, largely because of disagreements over whether to raise the gas tax. This leaves the states to scratch around on their own and they are increasingly looking at a per-mile tax to replace or, ahem, "enhance" the gas tax.

California is the latest -- and by any measure the largest -- to consider the idea. Even though it has more cars than any other state, its gas tax revenues have been falling in recent years and it,estimates its road repair backlog at $5.7 billion.

Gov. Jerry Brown last year authorized a limited study of the per-mile idea, which is winning growing acceptance around the country.

“We’re going to have to find another way to finance the upkeep of the roads,” Brown said during a January budget briefing. “Whether people use electricity or natural gas or whatever they use, they’re still wearing down the roads.”

What about tolls?

PhotoOf course, this brings up the unpleasant subject of tolls -- an increasingly popular way of financing roads, especially in the Washington, D.C., area and elsewhere on the East Coast.

It is not difficult to spend $20 on tolls driving around Northern Virginia -- and that's before you even get within 10 miles of D.C. In Maryland, a tolled portion of I-95 now charges $6 if you have a Maryland-issued EZ-Pass, $8 for everyone else, which surely defines the very concept,of inhibiting interstate commerce and denying equal protection.

Virginia likes to talk about its "public-private partnerships." What that means is that the state sells its roads to private companies who then lease them back to taxpayers, one toll at a time.

Virginia, which is sometimes so far behind it appears to be ahead, charged electric cars an annual surcharge of about $40 until last year, when a new Democratic administration rescinded the charge. The state that prides itself on being the home of the Bill of Rights (and the CIA) just couldn't see how a Prius had a freer right to travel than a Mustang.

While the per-mile tax may sound tame, so did tolls when they started. Many can remember taking extra quarters when driving on the New Jersey Turnpike. Now you need to take extra $20s.

Do the math

How much money are we talking about? The RAND Corp. suggested in a study a few years ago that a per-mile charge of 1.1 cents might generate 20 percent more revenue than gas taxes by 2030. That might solve the states' problems for a little while -- and, of course, the tax could always be raised.

Let's see how those RAND numbers work.,Say you drive 30,000 miles per year. At 1.1 cents per mile, you'd run up an annual tab of $330.

PhotoCurrently, if you drive a mid-sized car that gets 20 miles per gallon, you're probably burning about 1,500 gallons. In California, the gas tax is supposedly around 18,cents (although some would argue it's closer to 40 when you add in various fees and surcharges) so you're paying about $270. In Virginia, the tax is 11 cents (not counting hundreds of dollars per month in tolls for many unhappy commuters), so the comparable figure is $165.

Good deal, no? Well, maybe, although no one says RAND's 1.1 cent per mile charge will stick. And there's some question about the additional fees that get tacked onto gas purchases in addition to the gas tax.

Also, tax-wary conservatives note, consumers currently are to a great extent in control of how much they pay for highway usage. If you want to spend less on gas and gas taxes, you can always get a Prius, Chevy Volt, or even a Tesla.

Most Volt owners average 85 miles per gallon, which gets your annual fuel consumption down to about 352 gallons, running up a tax bill of $63,in California or $38 in Virginia (wow, old Tom Jefferson was right on target with that $40 annual fee).

Differing goals

The problem now, obviously, is that the states and their subjects have differing goals. The states want more money, their taxpayers want to pay less, or at least not more, while still having roads that don't crumble beneath their wheels.

The per-mile tax idea might fly in states already being strangled by lousy highways and outrageous tolls (e.g., Virginia and Maryland), but it could be a hard sell elsewhere.

One thing you can count on: if a per-mile tax is eventually enacted,,crafty legislators will build in a provision that allows an unelected commission of some sort to set the tax rate based on some obscure,formula so that future generations of politicos can decry the ever-rising rate while professing that there have no control over it.


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