Vehicle fees by the pound

Don Petron is a Sacramento resident who works at the instrument lab for the state Air Resources Board
The big hassle over the “vehicle tax"—actually, a vehicle-licensing fee—has been stuck in a rut. All the arguments have been about basing the annual registration fee on some measure of the vehicle’s “value.” Perhaps we need to change the whole focus of the discussion.

Commercial vehicles always have been taxed based on how much they weigh. I’ve even seen signs on big rigs that state: “This vehicle pays [x number of dollars] every year in road-use taxes.” This practice makes a lot of sense: The heavier the vehicle, the greater its impact on roads and bridges; the bigger the engine, the greater its consumption of fuel and its smog emissions. Vehicles that cost more of the public’s money should pay more to the public’s coffers.

With the recent popularity of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) and monster four-door pickups, personal vehicles now range in weight to more than 8,000 pounds. Specific vehicle weights are available from car manufacturers and are unlikely to change much from year to year.

My proposal is this: The Department of Motor Vehicles should establish a threshold of about 3,000 pounds and then charge all vehicles with weights below that threshold a minimum annual fee, whatever it costs for paperwork and mailing. Then the department should impose an “excess-weight fee” of about 10 cents a pound for every pound beyond the standard.

Under this plan, a 4,000-pound Buick would pay an extra $100 in vehicle-registration fees per year, a 5,000-pound Caddy would cost an extra $200, a 6,000-pound SUV an extra $300, and an 8,000-pound Hummer an extra $500.

This would bring in a lot of extra bucks in the short run and would encourage drivers to buy lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles in the long run. Rather than grabbing the biggest barge they can find, drivers will be more likely to shop for the smallest one they can live with.

The benefits to the environment and to the gasoline supply are obvious. People who insist on driving large vehicles can keep paying for the privilege—and can advertise their extra “contribution” with bumper stickers.

I’ve sent letters outlining this proposal to State Controller Steve Westley, Democratic Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg and the governor. So far, no replies. Perhaps a public discussion of ways to responsibly tax those who use more taxpayer resources is in order.