Iowa lawmakers are being asked to create new taxes for electric vehicles to cover the costs of repairing and maintaining Iowa’s 114,486 miles of roads and 24,598 bridges.

The Iowa Department of Transportation says it’s a fairness issue, which is true. But there’s also a larger issue, which I’ll get to in a minute. 

First, some background. 

Owners of electric vehicles don’t pay Iowa’s fuel taxes of 32.5 cents a gallon for diesel, 30.7 cents a gallon for gasoline and 29 cents a gallon for ethanol. 

Today, if you drive 10,000 miles in a car that gets 20 miles per gallon, you pay about $150 in fuel taxes. If you drive a diesel pickup that gets 18 miles per gallon, you pay about $180 for the same distance. 

But if you own a hybrid vehicle that runs on petroleum and electricity you’ll pay less than $70 in fuel taxes, and owners of battery-powered Teslas pay nothing.

Iowa’s fuel taxes will raise about $656 million this year, or about 45 percent of the state’s $1.45 billion Road Use Tax Fund. 

But revenue will certainly decrease in future years as more electric vehicles enter the market and the fuel mileage of other vehicles increases. 

So if Iowa is going to maintain and improve its roads and bridges, the DOT needs new revenue sources.

Last year, the DOT looked at how to tax electric vehicles for the wear and tear they cause on Iowa’s roads.

They considered the growing market penetration of electric vehicles, what other states are doing, and how and where owners charge electric vehicle batteries. 

They also looked at taxing hydrogen-powered vehicles, even though the only hydrogen cars that exist today are experimental models, largely because hydrogen vehicles are more prone to exploding when they crash. 

The DOT’s three recommendations to the Legislature are:  
1. Implement an excise tax of 2.6 cents per kilowatt-hour for public charging stations for light-duty vehicles and a tax of 4.4 cents per kilowatt-hour for heavy-duty commercial vehicles. Owners of electric vehicles would still be able to charge batteries at home tax-free, but when charging at public stations, they’d pay the tax. 
2. Create a supplemental registration fee for electric vehicles of $130 a year for battery-powered vehicles, $65 a year for hybrid vehicles and $9 for motorcycles.
3. Establish a hydrogen fuel tax that would amount to roughly double the current diesel fuel tax based on the fact that hydrogen power is expected to be twice as efficient as diesel. 

Those recommendations, which lawmakers are expected to take up this year, could resolve the immediate issue by adding new money to Iowa’s Road Use Tax Fund. 

But they won’t solve more serious, long-term problems of environmental pollution. 

In fact, the new taxes will likely contribute to them by making it less likely that Iowans will buy vehicles that are environmentally friendly. 

Also, the new taxes do nothing to address the long-term issue of how to efficiently move goods and people in Iowa.

It’s been clear for many years that Iowans need to ramp up our use of rail transportation. With 21st-century technology, rail is vastly more efficient than moving vehicles on concrete and asphalt roads.

Iowa closed one door on that possibility eight years ago when Gov. Terry Branstad refused to spend money that was available to study passenger train service between Davenport and Des Moines.

If we’d spent that money back then and begun exploring new revenue sources in the years that followed, we’d be miles ahead today. 

Perhaps, if we’d acted back then, we wouldn’t so be worried now about how to pay for adding two more lanes to our interstate highways.