Greener cars mean less cash for state highways

LIHUE — Fuel economy and emissions levels in new cars have surpassed Environmental Protection Agency standards for the past eight years running, and as a result the state is looking at new ways to generate revenue.

“It’s great that cars are getting lower emissions and more mileage per gallon, but we need to look long-term at the sustainability for the highway budget,” said Tim Sakahara, spokesman for Hawaii Department of Transportation.

Cars in the model-year 2015 averaged carbon dioxide emissions that surpassed standards by 7 grams per mile, which was a 13-gram per mile improvement, according to a recent EPA report.

A different report, released Wednesday, said average fuel economy was 0.5 mpg higher than in 2014, an average of 24.8 miles per gallon.

The County of Kauai aims to keep emissions low, and though there are no plans to purchase another vehicle for the fleet anytime soon, sustainability manager Ben Sullivan said when they do, they’ll be looking at electric vehicles.

“There’s no question that EVs are quickly becoming an important part of the auto market in Hawaii,” Sullivan said. “This is important because although the efficiency of conventional combustion engines can and will continue to improve, newer technologies such as electric drive and vehicle automation are becoming more important factors in reducing our fossil fuel dependence.”

While that’s great news for the environment, it’s not so good for HDOT’s bottom line, because the state’s highways division gets one third of its budget form a 16-cent fuel tax collected from each gallon of gasoline purchased.

“Cars are getting more efficient and some don’t use fuel at all,” Sakahara said. “The current tax revenue isn’t sustainable. It’s already flattening and in order to keep pace, fuel tax would have to double or so by 2035.”

The need for project prioritization goes hand in hand with a restricted budget.

“Right now an example of that prioritization is looking at system preservation projects as opposed to capacity projects,” Sakahara said.

System preservation projects upgrade and work with existing roadways, while capacity projects focus on building new roads.

Because of the tightening budget, the state is looking at switching from collecting a fuel tax to collecting a road user fee, where people would be charged for every mile they drive.

In September, the state received a $3.9 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration for a three-year study to test a statewide mileage based user fee as a possible funding source for the department.

The Hawaii Demonstration Project, as it’s called, will be focused on garnering widespread feedback from the community as the department tests the idea, and is currently meeting with stakeholders and government officials on the project.

Initially they’re looking at issues like how to monitor the number of miles driven and how to enforce the user fee.

Lower emissions and higher mileage traditionally translates into people driving more frequently, Sakahara said. That could translate into more cars on the road, though it’s not a proven fact that it will.

“Hawaii already does have a lot of vehicles on the road. In fact, the last analysis said there’s a car for every man, woman and child in the state,” Sakahara said. “Would fuel efficiency translate to more, well typically what studies have shown is that the lower the gas prices, the more people drive.”

Traffic and congestion was is a concern for many people throughout the state, and on Kauai.

“While it’s great news that the EPA finds new cars cleaner and more efficient than ever, it’s still important to get more cars off the road because of traffic congestion,” said County Councilmember KipuKai Kuali’i.

Supporting the Kauai Bus system whenever possible is one way to help get cars off the roads of Kauai, Kuali’i said.

“My Honda CRV is 15 years old and I’ll likely be in the market for a new vehicle in the next few years,” Kuali’i said. “It’s great to know that most, if not all, vehicles I will be looking to buy will be cleaner and more efficient.”


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