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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: With Washington roads in poor shape, tax breaks need scrutiny

A dual-motor Tesla Model S can reach 60 miles per hour in 3.2 seconds.

Even better, the Model S and its hefty price tag can reach the Washington treasury at $0 sales tax per purchase. And zero dollars in gas tax every time one pulls up to a charger.

Owners of the Model S, the Nissan Leaf and other electric vehicles get free use of Washington’s congested, crumbling highways and bridges. Yet Gov. Jay Inslee is reportedly ready to extend a sales tax exemption for EVs beyond its July 1 expiration date, and there is legislative support from Republicans and Democrats for the idea.

He may propose allowing EVs in HOV lanes now restricted to multipassenger vehicles.

Many other states also offer inducements, as does the federal government.

The Internal Revenue Service website details the EV purchase incentives up to $7,500 depending – and this is classic tax code hairsplitting – on the battery capacity.

The Tesla website lists the incentives for electric vehicle purchases for every state and U.S. territory.

California, naturally, offers rebates up to $5,000 for buyers of electric vehicles, including what looks to be – from the full-color photos of every eligible vehicle – $900 for a four-seat golf cart.

It’s time to slow down.

Transportation has become a third-rail issue in Olympia because everyone knows a solution will require more money. Most also understand that as more EVs, hybrids and high-mileage vehicles take to the road, the revenue from fuel taxes will fall further behind construction and maintenance costs.

Lawmakers have pushed the gap wider by sweeping sales taxes generated by highway construction into the general fund. The first step toward rational transportation funding would be halting that practice, which not only starves construction, it feeds cynicism about politicians gaming the tax system.

Republicans say they rejected a transportation budget last spring because Inslee was not addressing reforms, and because the governor has been coy about potential proposals for a carbon tax or similar tool to drive down greenhouse gas emissions.

Two weeks ago, his Carbon Emissions Reduction Task Force issued a final report that underscores the challenges of drafting a policy that will clean up our air without punishing Washington’s economy.

EVs certainly fit into that picture, but a sales tax holiday for buyers of expensive Teslas does not. Capping the amount of sales tax deduction makes sense. Dedicating the new revenue to placing more charging stations around the state has been suggested, but utilities should provide them, not the Department of Transportation.

Legislators should address another free ride when they finally face another transportation problem: studded tires. DOT estimates the damage done to pavement each year may be as high as $27.3 million. Users should be paying for the destruction they cause.

If lawmakers cannot muster the will to pass a comprehensive transportation package, they can at least stop the free-riders.

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