A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

OReGO: Some year the fun may stop

Written July 21st, 2016 by Hasso Hering
A variable VMT could be used to discourage congestion, as here on Highway 20 near Albany.

A variable VMT could be used to discourage congestion, as here on Highway 20 near Albany.

For about a year now, I’ve been one of the volunteers taking part in OReGO, Oregon’s pioneering test drive of a road-user charge, better known as a vehicle mileage tax or VMT. The experience has been painless and even kind of fun. But there may come a time when the fun stops and we all are taxed not just based on how far we drive, but also where and when.

The 2013 legislature authorized ODOT to enroll, starting last July 1, up to 5,000 cars and pickups in this demonstration project. Only 1,015 vehicles owned by 892 “active volunteers” were signed up as of this May. We volunteers installed vehicle mileage recorders supplied by ODOT contractors. Two systems use GPS, but mine reports how far I drive via the cell phone network. We are charged 1.5 cents a mile, and we get credit for the 30-cent-a-gallon state gas tax we pay at the pump. After several months in the program, I had accumulated a credit of a whopping $22.65, and in April ODOT sent me a check.

Since then I’ve changed trucks. The new one gets slightly better mileage, and my per-mile tax is a fraction of a penny higher than the gas tax equivalent. So now, for the miles I drove the vehicle since I got it, I owe the state $1.60. When the amount reaches $20 or more, I presume ODOT will mail me a bill. I’ll pay that, and then I’ll resign as a volunteer. Who wants to pay extra for years and years?

One of these years we may no longer have the choice. The state’s Road User Fee Task Force has been thinking what steps to take next. At a recent meeting, according to material posted online, the group considered “strategic planning for a mandatory road usage charge system.”

The task force is working on recommendations to the legislature. Among the questions being considered: What about imposing a mandatory mileage fee by vehicle model year? What about a variable rate based “on where and when one drives”? (So the tax might be higher to discourage congestion at certain times of the day.) And what about mileage taxes that vary by the type of vehicle? Some cities and counties have local fuel taxes. The task force wants to know if it’s possible to have a local mileage tax as well. They’re also wondering whether the mileage fee, once made mandatory, could be indexed to inflation.

All of this, if it goes ahead, implies a much more comprehensive system of tracking the movements of individual vehicles and billing their owners more frequently. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that eventually, a mandatory and variable mileage tax would increase not just revenue for roads but also state control of driving. The system would have to record where everybody goes, and when. Then it would have to make sure everybody pays.

The idea is to raise more money for road construction and repair. But the VMT can get very complicated, and it necessarily leads to more state control. So, if the gas tax alone no longer does the job, with its brilliant simplicity, couldn’t we just augment it by setting up toll booths in strategic places and collecting money there? (hh)


5 responses to “OReGO: Some year the fun may stop”

  1. Bob Woods says:

    If you want to have good roads and improvements to keep up with growth you HAVE to pay more because the existing gas tax is not doing the job. So choose your poison:

    1) Higher gas tax, automatically increasing as average miles-per-gallon increases, plus some special fees for electric, propane and whatever newfangled cars emerge.

    2) A mileage tax based on miles driven.

    3) Toll roads, based on distance segments driven.

    4) Per-person charges, regardless of whether you drive or not.

    5) Increased income taxes with the increased portion dedicated to roads.

    6) Increased property taxes with the increased portion dedicated to roads.

    7) Any combination of the above.

    And don’t forget to factor in the administrative costs of whatever approach(s) you choose.

    There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

  2. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    Quoted in an interview Jim Whitty, the architect of the VMT program and former ODOT manager, framed the motivation not as a way to “raise more money for road construction and repair,” as you state.


    “…it was not the need for increased transportation revenue but the state’s adoption of policies to promote electric and hybrid vehicles that prompted the legislature to act. In other words, if the state is going to incentivize programs that result in reduced transportation (gas tax) revenue, they have to consider the financial consequences of those policies.”

    The legislature intent at the time was to pursue climate solutions and VMT was a byproduct of that vision. It appears that somewhere along the way a VMT program was created that discourages the purchase electrics and hybrids.

    If revenue enhancement is now the primary focus, then VMT should be abolished. Raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation is a better way for the state to increase its take and provide a bit of incentive to trade in your truck for a nice shiny Tesla.

  3. Tony White says:

    Your last paragraph says it all and very concisely. (I presume the last sentence is a cynical comment.) More state control, higher taxes, and the ability to raise the tax through a complex system that will make it invisible to the taxpayers: that’s the big objective in all this. Our current simple system gives rewards to those who favor efficiency in their vehicle while still making the tax obvious to the payers. This is an unacceptable method of bureaucrats to enhance their empire.

  4. hj.anony1 says:

    System tracks how far you drive. Surely, it tracks where you drive and at what time of day. A lot of data to mine there. Not a problem if you are not conducting nefarious activities. Right? *raises eyebrow*

    Now what is really a concern is that as fuel efficiency standards continually rise and electric cars (& possibly hydrogen cars) gain a greater consumer acceptance, gas tax revenues will dwindle. Smart (progressive) for the state to explore other means to pay for upkeep on these damn roads we travel. Raising gas tax? I’ve commented before that “yes” Albany should do it. And not wait for Corvallis. Be bold instead of “me too”.

    Another way to be bold would be to pick the low hanging fruit. Tax organized religion and earmark that for roads.

  5. Peggy Richner says:

    Check out, “The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors,” by Walter Block and Brad Edmonds. A recent book about how roads and highways don’t have to be owned and run by government.


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