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Washington, Oregon Consider Mileage-Based Road Tax

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

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.

"There's a plug-in underneath my dash," she says pointing to a small, square transmitter that records Olson's mileage for monthly billing. She is a state transportation commissioner and has volunteered to test a newfangled tracking device.

"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," Olson explains.

You can imagine that if some drivers were offered a GPS-enabled device they would not just say no, but maybe "Hell no!" So why did Olson choose this option?

"Because I don't care if people know where I'm driving," she says. "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."

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.

"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.

"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.

"If you give people one way to do things, it might be satisfactory to some people," Whitty says. "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.

In Washington state, lawmakers will need more convincing to go down this road says state Senator Ann Rivers, a Republican from Clark County.

"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.

In Salem, the Oregon House Revenue Committee will be the first legislative panel to consider pay-by-the-mile this winter.  Committee chairman, Rep. Phil Barnhart, acknowledges a need "to come up with another way" to pay for road maintenance and construction.  But the veteran Democrat is noncommittal about requiring high-MPG car owners to pay a mileage-based road use charge.

"What the legislature is going to do with the proposal this time, I do not know.  We have yet to study the proposal in detail," said Barnhart.

On the Web:

Washington Road Usage Charge Assessment Committee
Oregon Road Usage Charge Pilot Project
Draft pay-per-mile legislation (Oregon House Revenue Committee)

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.