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)