Oregon has some newly minted experts on an idea that's been floating around for a while: motorists paying a fee based on how many miles they drive rather than for each gallon of gas they buy.
The state Department of Transportation says 91 percent of the participants in its yearlong pilot program (see "Back-Seat Big Brother," WW , May 25, 2005) to road-test the per-mile tax liked it. But it wasn't hard to find dissenters.
Two of three participants contacted by WW concluded they'd prefer the status quo of paying a 24-cents-per-gallon tax to continue raising money for road maintenance.
"I think the gas tax works fine. It penalizes people who drive more and people who drive in rush hour," says Michael Kennedy, one of the 299 participants. "The most straightforward solution is a raise in the gas tax."
The trend of people buying more fuel-efficient cars—which means less money raised by the current per-gallon tax—is driving the question of a tax based on miles driven. A Road User Fee Task Force, created in 2001 by the Legislature, directed ODOT to investigate a mileage tax's viability.
"There has to be a change. Everybody in transportation or concerned about transportation knows that," says Jim Whitty, manager of ODOT's Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding. "We have to move onto something else."
Environmentalists question why the state would switch to a system where a Hummer owner would be treated the same as a Prius owner. And civil libertarians raise alarms about the mileage tax's underlying technology—an electronic collection system that uses a global positioning system to count the number of miles driven. That information would get uploaded and recorded at service stations.
"We must be cautious and understand how information can be linked and how information can be used in a way that is not intended or foreseen," says Andrea Meyer, legislative director of ACLU of Oregon.
Whitty dismisses civil libertarians' concerns, saying the signal isn't continuous. And he says enviros' objections could be dealt with to account for fuel efficiency. As for the "91 percent support" touted by ODOT, Whitty stands by the survey.
Lee Youngblood, a participant who drives a 2001 Subaru Impreza that gets 28 miles per gallon on the highway, doesn't think being traced is something to worry about. "I don't find it intrusive," he says. "I carry a cell phone in my car. If you have OnStar in your car, you can be traced."
Objections by enviros and civil libertarians aren't the only obstacles to a mileage fee. Whitty acknowledges it's unlikely that a small state like Oregon could be the first to implement a mileage tax. "You have to have a consortium of small states working together on this," Whitty says. "Or California would have to get involved. Or the U.S. Department of Transportation."
Additionally, the prototypes used in the pilot are not commercially viable, meaning that the technology would have to be developed. Car companies also would have to get involved to install the equipment during manufacturing.
Program participant Walter Daggett says he and other volunteers aren't sure it's worth it. "I thought we all had reservations on the initial cost, and the benefits of the results," he says.
Oregon was the first state to implement a gas tax, in 1919. In 2005, the per-gallon tax generated $374 million, or about 30 percent of the state's road maintenance budget.