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January 9, 2013
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As others see it: State should consider road usage charge

Any legislative effort to establish a vehicle-use tax to offset diminishing gasoline tax revenues faces an obstacle course with caution lights blinking from all directions.

So, it would be easy to line up reasons to oppose a bill, expected to be introduced in the 2013 Legislature, that would impose a per-mile tax on vehicles getting at least 55 mpg. But, it also would be easy to argue against any alternative suggestion. That’s the problem with change; it’s uncomfortable.

In this case, it’s better to focus on the reasons to move forward. For the most part, even automobile manufacturers and anti-tax conservatives who oppose this particular proposal acknowledge that the current gasoline-tax model is inadequate to produce enough revenue to maintain roads. And even the most zealous sustainability advocates acknowledge we still need navigable roads.

Applying a per-mile tax to highly fuel efficient vehicles won’t solve the revenue problem in the short term — and maybe not in the long term — but it’s a good place to start.

Since it’s unwise to ignore caution lights, let’s examine them:

Privacy: For some, the scariest part of a per-mile tax is the technology necessary to assess such a fee. A pilot project currently under way gives participants five options to help reduce that concern.

Two are managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation and three use a private vendor. Only two of the plans, both privately managed, involve technology that allows the vendor to track a car’s location — one through GPS and one through a smartphone application.

Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, hopes that private management would increase public trust in a per-mile tax collection system. After all, he pointed out, drivers already trust cellphone and credit card companies with vast amounts of private information.

Also, the proposed legislation prohibits use of data collected for vehicle devices for anything other than user charges, said Jim Whitty, manager of ODOT’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding.

Sustainability: Automobile manufacturers and some environmentalists find themselves as unlikely allies in the mileage tax debate. Their common concern: A tax could discourage the purchase of fuel efficient vehicles, especially since some tax incentives for purchasing electric vehicles already have been reduced.

In the short-term, this might be true. But, eventually hybrid and electric vehicles have to meet the supply-and-demand test without government incentives. People who buy the vehicles should pay for use of roads in some manner.

Taxes: As any regular reader of The Oregonian’s editorials knows, we’re not big fans of increasing taxes when the economy is struggling. Semantics aside, this debate is about a new way of applying a tax — not about creating a new tax.

“Any system I would support would be a replacement,” not a way to increase revenues, Starr said.

Starr said he would like to find a way to craft a bill that the automobile industry can support. That is a worthwhile goal, but the light needs to turn green sometime during this legislative session.

The Associated Press
provided access to this editorial.


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The News-Review Updated Jan 9, 2013 02:34PM Published Jan 9, 2013 02:34PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.