Patrick considers higher fees for gas guzzlers
By Noah Bierman, Globe Staff
Governor Deval Patrick said today he is looking at a Hummer tax -- adding higher registration fees for gas-guzzling cars and offering discounts for those that do less harm to the environment. One industry opponent said it would be the first such fee in the nation on the state level.
The suggestion comes as Patrick prepares to unveil a fuller version of his much-awaited transportation plan on Friday. While he would not release details today, Patrick said at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce appearance that any gas tax increase would be coupled with a freeze on toll rates.
Environmentalists applauded the registration proposal, saying it would encourage people to buy smaller and more fuel-efficient cars, which are increasingly seen as key to curbing global warming. Similar proposals have been proposed in Massachusetts since at least 2001, but without the prominent backing of a sitting governor.
“The social costs of larger vehicles include not only the additional pollution, but also higher crash risks to other vehicles,” said Representative William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who is cosponsoring two bills in the Legislature that would penalize expensive and heavy cars with higher taxes or fees.
But opponents say such fees could penalize families and small businesses who need big cars or trucks and already pay higher fuel prices. And at least one influential player in the transportation debate worries that adding an environmental component to the debate could complicate it, and ultimately delay important plans to fix the state’s broken road and public transit system.
“There’s painful steps that need to be taken to fix our transportation system," said Stephen J. Silveira, a lobbyist who chaired the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission. "Once you bring the environmental aspect into them, you add a whole other layer of debate which makes this harder to get to at the end of the day. And this is hard enough.”
Patrick said today that his administration is looking at the Registry of Motor Vehicles fee structure to create "differential fees based on the efficiency of the vehicle or the emissions of the vehicle."
"Big gas guzzlers will pay more for their registration," he added. "Plug-in hybrids would pay less and you’d have a range, that kind of thing."
Patrick's office declined to elaborate on the proposal or say whether it would appear as part of his overall transportation plan. RMV spokeswoman Ann Dufresne said state transportation officials have been discussing a gas guzzler fee program, "but I think they’re still trying to flesh that out now.”
Patrick said today that he was continuing to look at raising the state gas tax, but did not commit to it. When asked about it during the Chamber event, he threw the question back to the audience, asking by a show of hands whether the crowd favored a gas tax increase or a toll hike. The crowd chose the gas tax, which has generally been a more popular proposal in the business community.
But Patrick cautioned that even if lawmakers raise the gas tax rate, the state would probably collect less money in the future as drivers buy more fuel-efficient cars and need less gas. Because of that, he is also considering a replacement that would charge drivers a fee for every mile they drive.
That's another reason environmentalists support the Hummer tax. If the gas tax is eventually phased out, a new fee would keep the pressure on consumers to buy more fuel-efficient cars.
“It allows for technology to evolve every year because it's always taxing the most polluting and it's always incentivizing the most efficient,” said Matt Elliott, a clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey, where the idea is also being debated.
The federal government already has a gas guzzler tax on new cars, passed in 1978. But sport utility vehicles and trucks are exempt, so it affects mostly high-performance luxury vehicles such as Aston Martins and Lamborghinis that have high costs and very poor mileage. Any car that gets more than 22.5 miles per gallon -- the vast majority of sedans and coupes -- is exempt.
A state fee on gas guzzlers that includes SUVs and gives rebates to drivers of plug-in and other high mileage cars has been proposed in other states, including California, but has yet to pass, according to Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represent 11 car companies, including the big three American carmakers. Territo warns of unintended consequences on families and small businesses and points out that low-mileage cars are already priced below big cars in most cases.
“Consumers that have these vehicles already pay more," said Territo, who said his group would oppose such a plan in Massachusetts.