Washington State’s vehicle displacement tax bill irks just about everyone

February 22, 2008

There has been quite a bit of uproar about Washington State Senate Bill 6900, which intends to create licensing fee increases for vehicles based on engine displacement. The goal, evidently, was to penalize fuel consumption and do more towards energy independence.

The fearmail going around indicates that SB6900 (courtesy of logic-challenged Rodney Tom, who represents the 48th District, including Medina, Clyde Hill and parts of Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland) would impose fees as such: Up to 1.9 liters $0, 2.0 – 2.9 $70, 3.0 – 3.9 $225, 4.0 – 4.9 $275, 5.0 – 5.9 $325, 6.0 – 7.9 $400, 8.0 or over $600. Natually, all the people with V6 Hondas and Toyotas are seeing that $225 green tax and seeing red.

Liberal Democrats and hard-line conservative Republicans are both screaming about this bill, which during my time as a Legislative Correspondent in the US House of Representatives I learned is usually a good indication that it has no future. Indeed, when I first heard about this bill many weeks ago, the commentary was already in that this bill was essentially dead on arrival.

It should come as no surprise to anyone with any slight understanding of automotive technology that fuel economy has very little to do with displacement – or even horsepower, for that matter. Case and point, despite a 348-cubic-inch (5.7-liter) V8 producing 350 horsepower, my 2002 Corvette gets 36 mpg on the freeway, far better than the 1986 2.2-liter Dodge Convertible I also enjoy. Credit goes to the Corvette’s fuel management programming, low weight, tall gearing, and impressive coefficient of drag. Conversely, many low-displacement six-cylinder and four-cylinder cars utilize shorter gearing to overcome much higher weight and nastier aerodynamics.

Displacement taxes are nothing new. Italy’s monumental displacement taxes prompted Ferrari to produce smaller-engined cars for the home market, since even the uber-rich couldn’t afford cars with more than two liters. So when the rest of the world enjoyed the 308, Italians made due with the anemic 208, which in real-world driving simply wasn’t any more fuel efficient.

Unfortunately, there’s another bill making its way though the State Legislature that has a much higher likelihood of success. This one imposes licensing fees based on EPA mileage ratings. This is also fairly moronic, since the EPA estimates reflect a single test loop, and as the commercials say “your mileage may vary.” For instance, the same Corvette that delivers 36 mpg (top up, headlights down and in 6th gear) on I5 between Olympia and Seattle (a hilly 60 mph run of 60-some miles) carried an EPA estimate for freeway economy at just 29 mpg when new. The EPA rating also changed a couple years ago, so this car would probably get a 2-4 mpg lower rating under the new methodology.

The EPA states that the estimates are just that: “estimates”, so why tax someone based on something fictional? Furthermore, a car uses no fuel when parked, so using logic, it would make no sense to tax someone with eight vehicles traveling 15,000 miles total each year more than a single car owner who travels 50,000 miles per year – at least if the goal is to reduce dependence on oil. No matter how many vehicles one person owns, they can only drive one vehicle at a time…unless of course you own two King Midgets, which you can strap to your feet and ride like roller skates.

The only real solution for penalizing people for driving inefficient vehicles is a gas tax. This ensures only charging for use Taxing a car for a license is fine, but I know people with 30 cars who use less gas in a year than most single vehicle owners. Driving uses fossil fuels, not sitting in a garage.

People can debate the validity of a fuel tax in making people drive less until they are blue in the face. Whether taxing now to fund mass transit, or waiting until the cost goes up due to higher demand with shrinking supply, either will make people drive less. At least paying for the fuel one uses is a fairer system…you pay for what you use.