Oregon’s voluntary road user fee program is puttering along, having produced at least one surprise, and my question is: Now what? Will Oregon take the next step and go for a mandatory system of paying road taxes by the mile?
The voluntary program, affectionately known as OReGO, is charging participants like me 1.5 cents a mile we drive and refunding the 30-cent-per-gallon state tax we paid when we bought gas.
The legislature authorized up to 5,000 participants for this first-in-the-nation large-scale test of a mileage tax for roads. But as of Nov. 13, only 953 had signed up since the program began in June. On Monday, ODOT’s Michelle Godfrey told me there were 958 volunteers, so five more had enrolled. That’s why I say the program is puttering along, not speeding by any means.
More than 400 volunteer vehicles in OReGO get more than 22 miles per gallon, and the most-enrolled vehicle is a Toyota Prius, the Road User Fee Task Force learned when it met on Nov. 18. That was a surprise, at least to me, because I had assumed owners of high-mileage vehicles would not volunteer for a program forcing them to pay more for roads. I guess a lot of Prius owners are more generous or public-spirited than I had assumed. Or they just have more money to spend.
The Prius people, by the way, were followed by owners of F150 trucks and Subaru Outbacks.
Of all the 950-plus participants, the largest single number, 225, was from Multnomah County. Washington County was second with 154. In Benton County, we have 44, and in Linn there are 20, according to the Nov. 13 report.
I asked about the money angle. Godfrey says the system has produced revenue, though the amount so far “was fairly negligible given the small number of participants.” Whatever the revenue was, it presumably came from the Prius owners. None of it was from me. I had enrolled my 2007 GMC pickup in the program, and as of Tuesday OReGO owed me $9.74 in excess gas tax. I won’t get it until the amount reaches $25, so I’ll have to put more miles on that truck.
What’s next? At the Nov. 18 meeting, the Road User Fee Task Force learned ODOT was working on an updated model to predict the costs and revenues of the fuels tax and other revenue sources. “The update,” the report in the agenda said, “is expected to produce a tool that ODOT can use to support (task force) policy recommendation considerations and discussions with legislators, state officials and other policy and decision makers around a potential mandatory road usage charge program.”
Among other things to be considered: Should the mileage tax be a flat amount as now (1.5 cents a mile), or should it vary depending on the vehicle? Should it apply to all vehicles or just those weighing less than 26,000 pounds? And should be be imposed all at once, or gradually, in steps? The task force was created in 2001 to look for alternatives to the gas tax as a means to fund our roads, and it may take many more years to settle these and other questions.
One member of the public, a retired satellite communications engineer, told the task force the current system, relying on sensors in vehicles and cell-phone band width to report distance driven and gas consumed, was way too complicated and costly. He suggested a simpler way: Have vehicle owners self-report their mileage on their tax returns. (hh)