Miles to go

Paying highway taxes by the distance you drive is only a matter of time

Purchasers of high-miles-per-gallon vehicles such as electric cars and plug-in hybrids face a potential tax bill to make up for the gas taxes they aren't paying — money that goes to maintain public roads in Oregon. They should not be surprised by this. Nor should other motorists, because eventually, more drivers likely will pay a tax based on the miles they drive rather than the gasoline they buy.

For now, state officials are looking at charging only owners of vehicles rated at 55 miles per gallon or more. That includes all-electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf, the gas-or-electric Chevy Volt and the plug-in hybrid version of the Toyota Prius. The current proposal would begin with cars purchased after July 1, 2015.

That's a ways off, but the trends are clear. Studies indicate that overall, motorists are driving less than in past years, no matter what kind of vehicle they own. The Seattle-based Sightline Institute reports that Oregon and Washington motorists last year used 7.1 and 7.3 gallons per person per week, respectively — the lowest levels in 50 years.

That is mostly the result of rising gasoline prices. The overall fuel efficiency of vehicles has stayed virtually flat since 2008. But projections indicate that today's average vehicle fuel economy of 20.5 miles per gallon will rise to 26.7 by 2027.

Oregon collects 30 cents in tax on every gallon of gasoline sold. That money pays to maintain the public roadways. It stands to reason that declining gasoline consumption will mean road maintenance funds will be depleted as well.

If people continue to scrimp on driving and purchase ever-more-efficient vehicles, the roads will suffer. One way to address this trend is to tax motorists based on the miles they drive, not the gasoline they purchase.

Those who drive the most will pay the most. That seems eminently fair — as long as relative wear and tear on the roads is taken into account.

In general, the heavier the vehicle, the harder it is on the roads. Tractor-trailers hauling freight are the worst offenders, and trucking companies have paid weight-mile taxes for years to compensate states for maintaining the roads they use.

Mike Card, president of Central Point-based Combined Transport and the new chairman of the American Trucking Association, recognizes that reality. The national trade organization supports higher fuel taxes because better highways and bridges are vital to the trucking industry.

The state is conducting a pilot project involving 47 vehicles. Exactly how the mileage information would be collected has not been determined. Possibilities range from a state official taking odometer readings to a remote GPS unit that transmits mileage data to the state.

The latter method has raised privacy concerns, but regardless of the method eventually chosen, motorists should prepare themselves for a new way of paying for the roads they use.

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