By editorial board • 

Per-mile tax the future, not necessarily the now

Drivers should probably get used to the idea of a per-mile tax to one day replace the gas tax. But there’s much to debate regarding the effectiveness of such a plan in the short term.

Often a pioneer in forward-thinking legislation, Oregon was the first state in the nation to launch a pilot program to test a per-mile tax. (The state enacted the nation’s first gas tax in 1919.) The experiment, named OreGO that started last summer, has lacked enthusiasm from the general public. The Oregon Department of Transportation has attracted about one-fifth of the 5,000 participants it originally hoped for. Those who did sign up are being charged 1.5 cents for every mile driven.

This summer, California is starting a similar program, and Washington is said to not be far behind. Meanwhile, an Illinois legislator has proposed a per-mile tax in his state. And there is word that Oregon legislators are debating the idea around as they prepare a 2017 transportation package. 

The first hurdle of a per-mile tax is the public perception of a government tracking every vehicle on the road. Those concerns will likely take a back seat as organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union ensure drivers’ privacy and rights are not violated. While debating Oregon’s pilot program, the ACLU of Oregon was told a GPS-based device provides information to law enforcement only with a warrant, and that if a per-mile tax ever becomes mandatory, taxpayers would have an alternative to a GPS device.

“We were able to get to a place where the ACLU did feel good about the program,” Becky Straus, legislative director for the ACLU of Oregon, said at the time.

At face value, the per-mile tax makes sense given the downward trend of gas tax revenues as vehicles become more fuel efficient. Our infrastructure continues to decline without sufficient funds for repairs. Wear and tear on roads is created from a 2016 Prius just as much as a 1996 Corrolla. The current system, it’s obvious, eventually needs to adapt to the 21st century.

It’s important to remember, however, that electric vehicles currently make up less than 1 percent of new vehicle sales in the U.S. And a per-mile tax results in drivers with more fuel-efficient cars paying more than under a gas tax, while the drive of a Hummer would be getting a break. There’s plenty of evidence to support a reform of gas tax and other user fees before going all in on a per-mile tax. 

Significant amendments will be needed in how our cities, states and nation compensate up for the shortcomings in our infrastructure. The number of electric will likely grow, and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon, especially in urban areas where car manufacturers are partnering with ride-share businesses like Uber and Lyft.

But there are bridges in danger and roads crumbling now. The investment in a new tax system and growth in bureaucracy will create up front costs. Oregon’s affinity for innovative legislation shouldn’t get in the way of providing solutions to the current needs.   

Comments

Don Dix

From the article --- "Often a pioneer in forward-thinking legislation, Oregon was the first state in the nation to launch a pilot program to test a per-mile tax. (The state enacted the nation’s first gas tax in 1919.) "

So the article confirms what many have known all along ... for about a hundred years, Oregon's 'forward thinking legislation' is all about 'taxing something'.

Question ... where was the recent increase in the gas tax (2011 - 6 cents/gal. ) spent? It was touted to be the cure, as it would add $300M a year for state, county, and city road and highway projects ...

From this article, the only fact to be garnered is the dog and pony show that was used to convince the public it was necessary in 2011, moves to 2016 ... another 'hot, steaming pile' to look forward to!

Mike

One way to make the per mile tax fair is to add weight to the mix. Heavier vehicles create more damage to the roads and bridges. They should pay more for that privilege. Washington uses weight when a vehicle is registered. Oregon needs to think about weight. Costing more may mean folks will choose lighter easier on the road vehicles.

Seabiscuit

Don, some of that money probably went to the "over used" charging stations placed at tax payer expense in the large metropolis's of Oregon. Like the 8 to 10 installed in the parking lot across the street from the Grocery Store in Detroit Oregon.

Is there even an electric car that can make it there from Salem or Bend?

Don Dix

Mike -- Oregon uses over 1.5B gals. of gas yearly. With the tax rate @ 30 cents, where did half-a-billion dollars go for the last 5 years? Oh yeah! They spent over $100M alone just to pay consultants and lobbyists to promote the project ... that never happened!

'Fair' would be a designation of 'for infrastructure only', but when there is new money in the public trough, the pigs tend to show up with all kinds of appetites!

Seabiscuit -- For some strange reason, spending foolishly by the state is just considered everyday business. Oregon has wasted billions on boondoggles, mistakes, and just plain stupidity. OWIN, BETC, DMV computers, ODOT (CRC and more), the govs. fiancée, as well as the Oracle lawsuit are all examples of wasted revenue over the last 25 years. Spending other peoples money with no responsibility or consequences seems a rather casual undertaking, from this view.

Don Dix

Sorry ... the CRC project spent the $100M on consultants and lobbyists, and never got off the ground.

Mike

Don. How to fix it? Stop all government spending? Make all roads and bridges private toll subject to private enterprise's largess? We vote one group out. Outrage. We vote the next group in. Outrage. And so it goes. I agree. Make the per mile/weight tax for infrastructure only, maybe repair and upgrade first. No Columbia River bridges to Nowhere.

Don Dix

Mike -- The gas tax levied in 1919 was said 'to get Oregon out of the mud'. That was the beginning of gas taxes paying for roads, bridges, etc ... infrastructure projects.

Every time there is a proposal to raise any tax, the storyline is 'this will cure the (road) problems', or 'vote yes for (roads or children)', or some other ploy tugging at the voter's conscience. That was the strategy in 2011, and it remains the same with this recent thought.

If one is asked to contribute to a cause, any cause, and afterward finds that the contribution was used foolishly or to fund something totally unrelated to the original promise, outrage is the expected reaction.

How to fix it? Make the government and the officials that make financial decisions stick to the script. If the 'selling point' is fix the roads, then there should be no diversion, no 'shuffling of priorities'. But that is exactly how they play with precious tax dollars. The money is spent, but very seldom does the spending mirror the promise, without any consequence or fear of retaliation.

So, the question remains, where does that half-a-billion go every year? I see very few accomplishments around the state, but I do see Portland and Trimet receiving enormous amounts of cash to prevent either from falling into the Willamette. The Tilikum Crossing Bridge was the first bridge built in Portland since 1973, and yet it has no auto traffic -- a $135M bridge that has nothing to do with taxing gas sales (but that is the source of a good deal of the money). Just think -- $135M Oregon dollars to build 'a bridge of the people'!

Although my desire for our elected officials to be truthful, open, and responsible may be an optimistic stance, the government history of 'bait and switch' has become an entrenched strategy in Salem. Change that and maybe half-a-billion per year could be useful for actual, needed construction!

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