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Bumps in the per-mile road tax

Drivers should probably get used to the idea of a per-mile tax to one day replace the gas tax. But there's much to debate regarding the effectiveness of such a plan in the short term.

Often a pioneer in forward-thinking legislation, Oregon was the first state in the nation to launch a pilot program to test a per-mile tax. (The state enacted the nation's first gas tax in 1919.) The experiment, named OreGO that started last summer, has lacked enthusiasm from the general public. The Oregon Department of Transportation has attracted about one-fifth of the 5,000 participants it originally hoped for. Those who did sign up are being charged 1.5 cents for every mile driven.

This summer, California is starting a similar program, and Washington is said to not be far behind. Meanwhile, an Illinois legislator has proposed a per-mile tax in his state. And there is word that Oregon legislators are debating the idea around as they prepare a 2017 transportation package.

The first hurdle of a per-mile tax is the public perception of a government tracking every vehicle on the road. Those concerns will likely take a back seat as organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union ensure drivers' privacy and rights are not violated. While debating Oregon's pilot program, the ACLU of Oregon was told a GPS-based device provides information to law enforcement only with a warrant, and that if a per-mile tax ever becomes mandatory, taxpayers would have an alternative to a GPS device.

"We were able to get to a place where the ACLU did feel good about the program," Becky Straus, legislative director for the ACLU of Oregon, said at the time.

At face value, the per-mile tax makes sense given the downward trend of gas tax revenues as vehicles become more fuel efficient. Our infrastructure continues to decline without sufficient funds for repairs. Wear and tear on roads is created from a 2016 Prius just as much as a 1996 Corrolla. The current system, it's obvious, eventually needs to adapt to the 21st century.

It's important to remember, however, that electric vehicles currently make up less than 1 percent of new vehicle sales in the U.S. And a per-mile tax results in drivers with more fuel-efficient cars paying more than under a gas tax, while the drive of a Hummer would be getting a break. There's plenty of evidence to support a reform of gas tax and other user fees before going all in on a per-mile tax.

Significant amendments will be needed in how our cities, states and nation compensate up for the shortcomings in our infrastructure. The number of electric cars will likely grow, and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon, especially in urban areas where car manufacturers are partnering with ride-share businesses like Uber and Lyft.

But there are bridges in danger and roads crumbling now. The investment in a new tax system and growth in bureaucracy will create upfront costs. Oregon's affinity for innovative legislation shouldn't get in the way of providing solutions to the current needs.