A local legislator is changing his approach to ensuring that owners of alternative-fuel vehicles fairly contribute to maintaining state bridges and roads.

State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said Monday he will revise bill S-2531, which he sponsored in February to tax electric or compressed natural gas vehicles for the miles traveled when they were inspected or sold. The money would go to the state's Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for the upkeep of state bridges and roads through fuel taxes.

Whelan said instead of a tax per mile, the owners of alternative-fuel vehicles would be charged an annual fee - about $50 per year, though that is not final - to go to the fund upon annual registration.

Whelan faced criticism when he introduced a bill. Opponents said the tax would hurt sales of fuel-efficient vehicles, did not specify which cars would be taxed in the original draft and that the mileage tax would penalize owners for driving out of state.

When told of the change in the bill Monday, Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles, Whelan's Republican opponent in November, said the change still could hurt the sale of energy-efficient cars.

"It's just another tax," he said. "We need to support the idea of having energy-efficient vehicles to help reduce the use of fossil fuels."

Whelan said when he introduced the bill, for which he was the lone sponsor, he intended for there to be discussion and possible changes to the bill. He said he will modify the document this spring and hopes it could be voted on in the fall.

Whelan said his fear was that, as these cars became more popular, the state's trust fund would generate less money. The fund receives about 14 cents per gallon of gasoline sales. The fee paid by the efficient car owners would be based on a formula of what the average car owner pays in the gasoline tax a year, he said.

"The electrical and natural gas cars are out there driving the same roads and bridges as everyone else does," he said. "But they're getting a free ride."

As cars become more fuel efficient and gasoline sales drop, Whelan said, there is concern about a depletion of the trust fund. His colleagues said that issue should be tackled at a later date.

Contact Joel Landau: 609-272-7215

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