How would you like to pay your highway taxes based on the miles you drive rather than the gallons of gas you buy. You may get the chance.
The Oregon Department of Transportation plans to test a system of charging by the mile next year in Portland. The pilot program does not have much visibility yet, so it is not controversial. It should be. Pilot programs have a way of becoming permanent programs.
Taxing highway use by the mile rather than by gallons consumed is a radical shift in the tax burden. It discriminates against motorists who live in sparsely populated parts of Oregon to solve a problem that exists largely in the Willamette and Rogue Valleys and Central Oregon.
Oregon’s gallon-based gas tax -- 24 cents a gallon is constitutionally dedicated to state highway construction and maintenance -- no longer brings in enough money for two reasons.
The Legislature has already spend a large part of it for the next few decades. Beginning in 2001, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the grandly named Oregon Transportation Investment Act. It was a list of pork barrel highway projects hidden behind badly needed projects to strengthen bridges for increasingly heavy trucks and make bridges more earthquake resistant.
Instead of raising taxes, the Republicans decided to borrow the money and pledge future highway fund revenues to pay off the bonds. Money spent on interest payments reduces funds available for highway maintenance.
Gasoline tax money is also declining relative to the miles Oregonians drive for another, counterintuitive reason. The entire fleet of vehicles we drive is actually getting more fuel-efficient. The media pay attention to gas-guzzling SUVs and monster pickup trucks but ignores the news that the overall efficiency of all vehicles has actually increased due largely to competition from Japan and government air pollution control regulations.
These two trends combined mean there is less money available from the present gas tax at the same time more vehicles are driving more miles on many Oregon streets, roads and highways.
Oregon’s decision to test taxing highway use by mileage instead of by gallons consumed is not so much because it is a better method, but because the federal government will pay $2.1 million of the $2.9 million cost. The problem with taxing by the mile is that not all driving creates the same problems and all vehicles do not impose the same wear and tear on the highway system.
ODOT plans to divide the pilot program’s 300 drivers into a control group that will pay the 24 cent a gallon state gas tax and second group will pay 10 cents a mile to drive during morning and evening rush hours and 0.4 cents a mile all other times for instate driving.
The pilot program will be conducted in Portland with cars equipped with global positioning system receivers to record mileage and transmit it to ODOT when drivers buy fuel at one of two independent gasoline dealers.
The pilot program was originally planned in Eugene, but ODOT officials say most Eugene gas stations are corporate-owned and the the national gasoline companies owned stations in Eugene decided not to participate. It is not clear whether they just didn’t want to hassle of a pilot program or feared bad publicity, but corporate-owned gasoline stations have reason to worry about controversy.
The GPS technology ODOT will use to record mileage for tax purposes has the capability to track a vehicle anywhere and record parameters like speed, braking, etc. Similar technology is now used by some trucking companies to keep track of their drivers and delivery vehicles.
If a commercial use doesn’t emerge for tracking data, it will certainly eventually be subpoenaed in civil and criminal court cases to try and fix blame in traffic accidents and track suspects in abduction cases.
Lawyers are already trying to subpoena credit card data and preferred customer card records in drunk driving cases in an effort to establish drinking habits. Motorists are trying to disable “black boxes” that record driving speeds, braking and other parameters now that it has become known the auto industry has been surreptitiously installing them in some motor vehicles.
Americans intrinsically understand that computerized data collection and aggregation are the tools of the modern police state. Although the police state was renamed the national security state after 9/11, the collection and compiling of information about individuals -- and the motives of people associated with it -- remain suspect. As they should.