ODOT wants to tax you per mile

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Readers should make no mistake. ODOT and many political leaders foresee Oregon as being the first state to initiate and implement a vehicle mileage tax.

Oregon is the first state in the nation to establish a Road Usage Charge Program. The Department of Transportation (ODOT) alleges that charging vehicles for miles driven is needed to create sustainable funding sufficient to pay for Oregon highways.

ODOT claims that revenue collected from fuel taxes, used to support Oregon transportation system construction and maintenance, has been declining since the early 1990s. Officials from the agency say that the decrease generally results from Oregonians driving more fuel efficient vehicles as well as driving fewer miles. The 30 cent per gallon State fuel tax collects less revenue when the average driver uses less fuel.

The Road Usage Charge Program was created by Senate Bill 810 during the 2013 legislative session. It created a voluntary program for up to 5,000 cars and light commercial vehicles to participate in the plan. That project will begin July 1, 2015.

The Program participants’ vehicles will be electronically tracked to enable the Department to calculate the miles driven. The drivers will be charged for the miles that they drive instead of paying the Oregon fuel tax.

SB 810 passed both chambers with significant bipartisan support and was signed into law by governor Kitzhaber. It represents an extension and enlargement of the Oregon Road User Fee Pilot Program that concluded in 2007. That plan provided for a smaller but similar road usage charge and was deemed to be successful by the Department.

Moreover, the language of SB 810 actually wrote the “voluntary” Road Usage Charge Program into Oregon statutes in great detail. The statutes could be easily amended to include all Oregon drivers, in the event that a future Legislature decided that the “voluntary” Program was successful.

Representative Whitsett and I both voted “NO” on SB 810 for a variety of reasons.

The Program proposes to replace most Oregon fuel taxes with a flat charge of 1.5 cents per mile driven. Oregon fuel taxes collected at the pump will be refunded to participating motorists upon request, when appropriate documentation is presented. Under certain conditions, the refund may be applied to future highway usage. The federal 18 cent per gallon fuel tax will continue to be collected.

This proposed system will allow the State to automatically collect mileage data from vehicles as they travel over Oregon roads. Motorists will be able to choose from several mileage reporting devices that will collect that data. The law requires at least one mileage reporting device to be made available that does not utilize GPS tracking of the vehicle.

The mileage reporting devices will be designed to interface with the vehicle to collect mileage data. They will be paired with software that will send the mileage totals to a private account manager.

ODOT will contract with private companies to maintain customer accounts. Those private companies will collect travel data, calculate charges and credits, and submit the charges to the Oregon Treasury.

Motorists will be allowed to apply for a refund for miles travelled out of state as well as miles driven off public roads. Documentation will be required to prove that the requested refund is for applicable miles driven.

Significant penalties are created for misrepresentations made in the refund request. Similarly, significant penalties are created for tampering with, or in any way altering, the mileage reporting devices that will be installed in our vehicles.

Simple mathematics demonstrates how the proposed mileage charges discriminate against high-mileage vehicles. Oregon’s 30 cent per gallon gas tax costs drivers one cent per mile when travelling in a vehicle that gets 30 miles per gallon. The proposed vehicle mileage charge would increase that cost by 50 percent, to one and one half cents per mile driven.

The mileage charge and the gas tax would be equal, at one and one half cents a mile, in a vehicle that gets 20 mile per gallon. The mileage charge would be double the gas tax in a vehicle attaining 40 miles per gallon. Owners of higher mileage vehicles would suffer even greater discrimination.

The Vehicle Mileage Tax further discriminates against families who live in rural areas. Their location and lifestyle requires them to travel much greater distances than their urban counterparts. This scheme penalizes them for where they live by taxing them more to drive to work, to the store, to church or anywhere else.

SB 810 prohibits disclosing personal information collected by the mileage reporting devices. However, that prohibition includes a list of exceptions such as ODOT employees and contractors for certified service providers. Further, ODOT may enter into agreements to share the confidential information with other state departments of transportation, the federal government and Canadian Provinces.

The Department of Transportation is currently engaged in a statewide “Road Usage Charge 2014 Statewide Listening Tour.” It is holding meetings in seven Oregon cities between October 20th and 27th.

ODOT’s stated purpose is to educate communities and to hear local input regarding the Program through local feedback, group public meetings as well as one-on-one interviews and focus groups. More information about declining revenues and transportation funding is available on the ODOT website.

The Department states in its flyers advertising the listening tour that “input from the Statewide Listening Tour will contribute to ODOT’s comprehensive research on Oregonians’ perceptions of per-mile charging which will in turn, inform how the program is implemented on July 1, 2015.”

Readers should make no mistake. ODOT and many political leaders foresee Oregon as being the first state to initiate and implement a vehicle mileage tax. They envision the voluntary Road Usage Charge Program as the last necessary step toward achieving that goal.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls