Oregon's Department of Transportation is once again trumpeting the latest iteration of its plan to tax Oregonians based on mileage driven - not just gasoline consumed.
After all, gas taxes are no longer keeping up with the cost of highway maintenance and construction. That's because gas-powered cars are getting more efficient, hybrid and electric vehicles are becoming more common, and the cost of highways keeps going up.
But the concept they've been working on - at least as far back as 2005 - is utterly ridiculous, and will surely be resoundingly rejected by voters both liberal and conservative. Here's the latest gee-whiz coverage from the Oregonian:
Smartphones are great for texting, checking email, and surfing the web. But now your phone will be able to track the miles traveled in your car by connecting to an on-board device. Next, the information is reported to the government, which will then tax you on it. Yes, there is an app for that. ...
Sorry, but this new plan is just as bad as the last one. Completely obvious problems:
How will Oregon force all vehicles to get a GPS device installed? There are plenty of very old cars on the road. (My parents are still driving a 1980 Volvo, and I owned a 1967 Barracuda just a few years ago.)
ODOT claims they've resolved civil liberties objections because the new GPS devices are privately manufactured. That's nonsense. The data will still be stored somewhere. And unlike your phone, you won't be able to turn it off if you're going somewhere you'd rather not be tracked.
What's the cost? I find it hard to believe that the cost of all these GPS devices - and the enforcement required to ensure that every Oregon vehicle has one - is going to be justified by the revenue that they produce. Show me the money, ODOT.
And worst of all? This entire effort is designed to tax energy-efficient vehicles. Check out this absurdity from the O's editorial board:
The tax as a user fee is no longer fair. When it comes to road repair, those who drive thirsty road hogs are now subsidizing those who drive efficient and unconventionally powered cars. This trend needs to reverse...
This trend needs to reverse? Seriously?! Electric vehicles and hybrids should subsidize "thirsty road hogs"? Are you kidding me? No, no, a thousand times no. We need to pay for highway maintenance. Insisting that carbon-spewing gas-guzzlers shoulder a larger portion of the expense is also an excellent way to reduce pollution. We shouldn't do anything that pushes consumers away from fuel-efficient vehicles. (And not just because we want to reduce carbon pollution. But fuel-efficient vehicles are lighter and thus put less wear on the roads, too.)
Here's what I'd do instead:
Raise Oregon's gas tax to match our neighbors. In 2011, we raised it six cents to 30 cents/gallon -- but we're still 5.3 cents behind California and 7.5 cents behind Washington.
Inflation-adjust the gas tax. It should go up every year based on inflation (or more). Otherwise, the purchasing power of those highway maintenance dollars will just erode over time.
Raise car registration fees. I'm sympathetic (a little) to the idea that electric vehicles don't pay much at all for highway maintenance. Right now, all passenger vehicles pay just $43/year for registration (plus $19 if you're in Multnomah County). Bump that $10-25 and inflation-adjust it.
Tax tires. 35 states do; Oregon doesn't (pdf). A tire tax would hit both gas-guzzlers and fuel-efficient cars, and would disproportionately affect those who drive the most miles. (Hey, look! A highway-maintenance fee that is directly tied to highway usage - without a GPS.) Most states are between a buck or two; California charges $1.75/tire. I'd consider doubling or tripling the tire tax for studded tires - which cause the most damage to our roads.
In addition to the privacy considerations, my biggest objection to the GPS tax is its complexity. It will require delivering new technology to every single Oregon driver. That technology will have to be maintained. And enforcement will be a nightmare.
The four revenue ideas I've proposed are easy to understand and easy to collect. They don't require installing new technology anywhere and don't violate anyone's privacy. They may not be gee-whiz sexy, but they're dead simple and will get the job done.
Previously on BlueOregon:
- Making a Gas Tax Work by Jeff Alworth, March 2009
- Of Mileage and Gas Taxes by Jeff Alworth, January 2009
- GPS-tracked mileage taxes, private toll roads, and other dumb gimmicks by Russell Sadler, April 2007
- The mileage tax: coming soon? by Russell Sadler, June 2005
- Beyond the Gas Tax, May 2005