Washington & Oregon Consider Mileage-Based Road Tax

By Tom Banse

PORTLAND - Washington and Oregon are getting serious about finding a replacement for the gas tax. Steadily improving fuel efficiency in cars is eroding the primary source of road funding in the Northwest. A new report to the 2013 Washington Legislature finds it "feasible" to have drivers pay by the mile instead. In Oregon, lawmakers have actually drafted legislation to do just that.

Suburban Portland SUV owner Mary Olson has possibly glimpsed the future of how we'll pay for roads, although it's tricky to spot.

In West Linn, Ore., pay-by-the-mile study volunteer Mary Olson shows the mileage tracking device installed in her SUV.

Mary Olson: "There's a plug-in underneath my dash..."

A small, square transmitter records Olson's mileage for monthly billing. She is a state transportation commissioner and has volunteered to test a new fangled tracking device.

Mary Olson: "It has GPS capability, so it knows somehow whether I am traveling on state, county, or city roads or if I am traveling on private property."

Tom: Now, I imagine that some drivers if offered a GPS-enabled device would not just say no, but maybe "Hell no!" Why did you choose this option?

Mary Olson: "Because I don't care if people know where I'm driving. I don't have a problem with that. But more importantly, I drive out of state from time to time. This way, I don't have to think about that because the device automatically tells them that I am not in Oregon, so I am not charged for those miles."


Photo: In West Linn, Ore., pay-by-the-mile study volunteer Mary Olson shows the mileage tracking device installed in her SUV.

Olson is one of about 100 volunteer participants from Oregon, Washington and Nevada testing pay-per-mile as an alternative to the gas tax. She shows me her December bill from a state transportation contractor.



Mary Olson: "They're charging me a penny and a half per mile. So that was $5.21."

It turns out, that's just about exactly what gas taxes would've cost her. (Road trial participants get a credit for the estimated state gas taxes they pay at the pump.)

Oregon Department of Transportation project manager Jim Whitty says the experiment shows how a new approach to pay for roads could work. He argues it's important to get moving on a mileage-based road tax because average fuel economy keeps improving, not to mention those electric cars which generate no gas tax at all.

Jim Whitty: "As more and more people move into that segment, into the high fuel efficiency vehicles, essentially our financial system for the roads collapses."

Whitty says Oregon's real-world experiments have also demonstrated that drivers want choices for how their mileage is tracked. They want the option to pay a flat rate too. Consultants hired by Washington's Department of Transportation came to the same conclusions.

Washington's Interstate-90

Jim Whitty: "If you give people one way to do things, it might be satisfactory to some people. But most people will say, I wish they had done it a different way. Especially if that choice was GPS. They say, 'Aha, the government is getting my coordinates.' You want to avoid that because we don't want their coordinates. We have no reason to have them. All we want is the taxes from their driving."

Once the Oregon Legislature gets down to business this winter, lawmakers will consider whether to implement pay-by-the-mile starting two years from now. The proposed legislation says metered road use would apply only to new cars that average 55 miles per gallon or better.

Photo: Washington's Interstate-90.

In Washington state, lawmakers will need more convincing to go down this road says state Senator Ann Rivers, a Republican from Clark County.
Ann Rivers: "I think that this idea is so new, it's going to take quite a bit of time to get the public comfortable with it."

As Rivers puts it, having "Big Brother" ride along in your car is big issue to overcome. She also predicts her constituents will perceive the mileage tax to be additive rather than a replacement for an existing tax. Finally, Rivers mentions one more speed bump... both Oregon and Washington have supermajority requirements to pass new taxes through their respective legislatures. 

Photo credits:

Washington's Interstate-90. By Paige Browning.
In West Linn, Ore., pay-by-the-mile study volunteer Mary Olson shows the mileage tracking device installed in her SUV.  By Tom Banse.

Washington Road Usage Charge Assessment Committee:

http://waroadusagecharge.wordpress.com/

Oregon Road Usage Charge Pilot Project:
http://roadchargeoregon.org/

Oregon House Revenue Committee draft pay-per-mile legislation (when the 2013 Oregon Legislature convenes on Jan. 14, this draft should turn into HB 2453):
http://www.leg.state.or.us/committees/exhib2web/2011interim/HREV/hrev_files/LC%20Drafts%20for%202013%20Session%20HREV/LC0266_DRAFT%202013.pdf

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