Gov. Inslee proposes free toll lane, ferry travel for electric vehicles

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee wants to see a lot more electric vehicles in the state in five years, and he’s willing to spend a few million taxpayer dollars to make it happen.

His plans for transportation include incentives to make it cheaper and easier to own an electric vehicle, in hopes of boosting the number on the road in Washington from 10,000 today to 50,000 by 2020.

He wants to continue waiving the sales tax on purchases of alternative-fuel vehicles and subsidize the installation of rapid-charging stations for private firms to operate.

And the governor wants to let electric vehicles travel at no cost on state ferries and in toll lanes.

“Electric vehicles are here and they’re here to stay,” said Charles Knutson, the governor’s transportation adviser. “We want to see them … promoted in Washington state.”

Giving drivers of electric vehicles a break on ferry fares and traveling in high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes are the ideas eliciting the sharpest rebukes from lawmakers of both parties.

“If a vehicle is driving on the ferry, regardless of how it is powered, it requires space,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton. “Why would you exempt a vehicle because of its power source and require other Washingtonians to pay their bill? That’s not fair.”

Leaders of the House and Senate transportation committees seem certain that particular proposal won’t be in any funding package embraced by the Legislature.

“I don’t see where you get the votes for that,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who chairs the House panel. “With all the different constituencies that you need to bring to the table to pass a package, this doesn’t bring a lot of people to the table.”

Inslee’s approach emerged last month in two documents: a proposed transportation budget for the next two years, and a 12-year, $12 billion package of highway, bridge, ferry, transit and other transportation projects funded primarily by a new tax on carbon emissions.

Legislation for both will be drawn up for lawmaker consideration in the 2015 session that begins Monday.

Key pieces in the first-term governor’s plans include:

Extending the sales tax exemption on purchases of those vehicles. It is set to expire this summer. The exemption would be for the first $60,000 of a vehicle’s value, Knutson said.

Giving drivers a credit in their Good To Go or Wave2Go accounts to be applied to ferry fares and HOT-lane tolls. Inslee allotted $25 million in his 12-year revenue package to pay for this — a little more than $2 million a year, or roughly $200 for each of the estimated 10,000 electric and alternative vehicles on the road.

Knutson said the money to pay for the credits would come from the carbon- pollution charge proceeds and not other taxpayers.

Two other incentives aim to get more rapid charging stations built along key routes around the state, as well as at public buildings, large apartment complexes and other places where there might be a concentration of electric-vehicle users.

Inslee wants to establish an infrastructure bank through which the state would put up money to cover the installation of the charging stations. The money would come from the $100 fee now levied on owners of electric vehicles. The governor wants to spend several million dollars in the next transportation budget for this effort.

So far, there is more criticism than praise for the governor’s electric-vehicle proposals.

“How far do you go to incentivize people to buy an electric car?” asked Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “He’s trying to pick winners. He thinks electric cars are winners. The market has got to be there. We don’t need to create it.”

The incentives are part of Inslee’s broader agenda to fight climate change through new policies, regulations and taxes.

King said reductions in carbon emissions already are being achieved as a result of the state’s promotion of electric vehicles and federal rules requiring more fuel-efficient ones.

“He just ignores that,” King said of the governor. “He just wants to beat the heck out of anyone with a car or truck that uses gas or diesel.”

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who will be the transportation committee’s ranking Democrat, said the sales tax exemption should be allowed to expire.

“I don’t mind putting the infrastructure in place because maybe electric vehicles are the future,” Hobbs said. “I don’t like providing exemptions or tax breaks, because if you can afford an electric car you can afford to pay the sales tax.”

Clibborn said she likes the infrastructure bank idea because it could remove an impediment to establishing fast-charge stations along key travel corridors and in areas with a lack of stations.

A recent study prepared for lawmakers found that businesses view the stations as a money-losing proposition because they cannot recoup their investment cost from what folks pay to charge their cars. It can cost as much as $100,000 to set up a station, which requires very-high-voltage circuitry.

But Clibborn differs with Inslee on how to pay for it. While he would rely on the existing fee levied on electric-car owners, she suggested that the fee be raised and the additional dollars put into the infrastructure bank.

Meanwhile, electric-vehicle-owning lawmakers are piecing together their own proposals.

State Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, said the handful of electric-car drivers in the Legislature might endorse retaining the sales tax break in some form because it spurs purchases of electric vehicles, which in turn helps reduce carbon emissions. Another idea is to assist new car owners with the cost of installing a charging station at a home or in apartment complex.

“We’re trying to create a system that is fair and sustainable,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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