When green puts us in the red

Kudos to the Red Deer Lodge and Conference Centre for installing a recharging station, so that hotel guests can boost their electric cars for free. Electric car owners can also tank up for free at the Red Deer Peavey Mart.

Kudos to the Red Deer Lodge and Conference Centre for installing a recharging station, so that hotel guests can boost their electric cars for free. Electric car owners can also tank up for free at the Red Deer Peavey Mart.

The trend toward electric cars is definitely at the thin edge of the wedge in Alberta, wedded as we are to our pickup trucks. But if the offer of another 300 km or so of free fuel can attract them a little more business, more power (pardon the pun) to them.

Right now, electric cars only comprise about .2 per cent of the total Canadian vehicle fleet. But when that figure rises to significant degree, expect a little pushback.

Here’s the rub: electric car owners pay no fuel taxes. And as regular gas-burning vehicles get more and more efficient, provincial and federal revenues on fuel taxes per kilometre driven have been steadily dropping.

Alberta raised $760 million in the 2010-2011 fiscal year from fuel taxes, which sit at 9 cents a litre for gasoline. The federal tax is 10 cents, plus GST, for a total of 20 cents a litre of the pump price of gas in our province. That’s the lowest in Canada, except for the Yukon.

The revenue does not go specifically toward roads or transportation infrastructure. All our revenue goes into the general pot, and budget considerations are made out of that pot. Besides, total the provincial transportation budget comes to way more than $760 million a year.

But money is money, and the province together with all its municipalities need a lot of it to spend on roads. Sooner or later, people will start asking (erroneously) why electric car owners should get to use the roads “for free.”

Government started asking itself that same question a long time ago. We of a certain age can remember the first time the price of gas made us look twice.

During the global energy run-up of the 1970s and ’80s, a fad grew in Red Deer to convert gas cars to propane, which was much cheaper, and on which there was no fuel tax. The response was quick enough; there’s a fuel tax now on propane and if you use that fuel for other uses, you can apply for a rebate.

Good luck to all you barbecue owners, now that it’s grill season.

In the U.S., the State of Virginia charges electric car owners $64 a year in lieu of fuel taxes. Washington State charges $100. Arizona Senator Steve Farley wants to impose a one-cent-per-mile levy on electric cars that travel state highways.

It’s never been easy being green.

If you drive an electric car because of concerns over emissions, there’s also the knowledge that our electricity is overwhelmingly coal-generated. Dirty oil, you say? Dirty power, too.

More green power gets added to the grid every year, and technologies are improving all the time to solve the problem of storing large amounts of potential energy, to smooth the peaks and valleys of solar and wind power.

But for the foreseeable future, the more efficient your car, the better for the environment and your pocket, but the worse for the provincial budget.

It takes a certain nerve to suggest fixes that would be a disincentive to a more efficient road fleet. But sooner or later, someone in every province is going to do it.

One gambit has been to discourage gas guzzlers even more. P.E.I., Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C. (along with the cities of Victoria and Vancouver) all charge an extra carbon tax on fuel. This certainly makes the (apparent) payback faster on a more efficient vehicle, but it doesn’t solve the revenue problems of the governments involved.

Others have suggested killing fuel taxes altogether and making all roads toll roads, so that highway building and upkeep can truly be pay-as-you-go.

That could work for municipalities, too, which spend hugely on infrastructure for streets, roads and bridges, but get barely a whiff of fuel taxes.

For myself, I’m willing to pay a nominal annual fee to ride my bike, on top of whatever fuel taxes or road tolls I might pay for the family car. Riding already saves me the price a new bike every couple of years. But that would have to come with a paid-up guarantee of full — and safe — passage, free of harassment from drivers.

If every bike carried a road tax, it might encourage more cycle commuting, because people make greater use of things they’ve already paid for. I’d want to get my money’s worth.

But this is the thin edge of the trend. There’s time to consider the fairest way to build and maintain good roads, no matter how we use them.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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