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Eye On Illinois: If electric vehicle usage soars as hoped, gas tax tweaks essential

It’s 160 miles one way to visit my in-laws’ house in Whiteside County, a journey that takes us nearly from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.

Although we can fit all four kids and both dogs in one car, the Thanksgiving weekend schedule worked out to driving in shifts. Work in a side trip to the family farmland in Jo Daviess County – another 75 miles there and back – and that’s a total of 715 miles in just a few days, on everything from a hilly, narrow gravel road to an interstate where the speed limit is only a suggestion.

No complaints, of course. We enjoyed the holiday visits, breathed some fresh country air and happen to drive a couple of newer cars that get pretty good gas mileage. And the filling station just across the river in our former city of residence is less painful at the pump than our usual suburban spots.

But as I cruised along I-88 west of Aurora, observing sprawling factories along the highway and then wind turbines to the south, I couldn’t help but think about Gov. JB Pritzker’s appearance earlier this month at a climate change conference in Scotland where he pledged Illinois could “become the best place in North America to drive and manufacture an electric vehicle.”

Last week Capitol News Illinois produced a useful report headlined “1 million EVs: Inside the state’s plan for electrifying the transportation sector.” The primary focus was the veto session legislation that looks to incentivize construction and expansion of facilities to provide electric vehicles and their assorted components, especially batteries, primarily through payroll and construction tax credits.

The General Assembly passed House Bill 1769 with near unanimous support Oct. 28. I’ve written a few times about the importance of making sure those economic development incentives actually do provide taxpayers a substantial return on their investment. One aspect I overlooked thus far – and which did not surface in the CNI report – is the way a dramatic uptick in miles driving by electric cars might undercut the mechanism for funding highway construction budgets.

It’s not an undiscussed subject. As a candidate in 2018, Pritzker said he’d consider copying Oregon’s pilot program in which drivers who opted to have a tracking device in their cars were given credits on gas taxes. Last summer, Chicago Alderman David Moore, a candidate for Secretary of State, suggested a state law allowing digital license plates with GPS technology for a variety of purposes, including shifting to a mileage tax.

Republicans balked at both ideas, primarily citing privacy concerns, but if Illinois is going to succeed in supercharging electric vehicle usage, leaders must develop a plan for keeping road funds unaffected. The sooner the better.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.