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State looking at mileage tax system

ODOT intends to launch a pilot program to test different methods of tracking miles driven by citizens
In 2008, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) conducted a pilot program testing the viability of a state mileage tax system.
   The pilot did not lead to any changes, but four years later, at the request of the Oregon Legislature’s Road User Fee Task Force, ODOT plans to try it again.
   The state is considering the mileage tax to replace the gas tax, which has historically funded the ODOT.
   “The gas tax is failing,” said James Whitty, manager of ODOT’s office of innovative partnerships and alternative funding. “The nature of our vehicles is changing rapidly. Right now, we have electronic vehicles that don’t use any gasoline at all. This year, we have the new plug-in hybrids . . . and they are popular.”
   During the 2008 pilot project, people rejected the proposed mileage tax for multiple reasons. For example, some citizens felt that tracking the mileage a person drives infringes on personal privacy rights.
   The pilot included use of a government-designed wireless GPS device that would track the miles a vehicle travelled. The public didn’t approve, fearing the government could use the device to spy on them.
   “That was a big miss on our part,” Whitty said.
   This time, they will incorporate multiple mileage tracking devices based on existing technology in the private sector.
   “The key here is to not have just one way to do this,” Whitty said. “There are several ways available right now that are already in the marketplace, and already being used for other purposes.”
   For example, the auto insurance industry has a device that plugs into a vehicle’s diagnostic port and tracks mileage without utilizing any GPS technology. Another vendor ODOT hired produced a smart phone application that connects to the insurance industry device enabling the driver to differentiate miles by location.
   “Some people will travel out of state significantly, and they may not want to report all of their miles,” Whitty said.
   While ODOT hopes the changes will alleviate privacy concerns, Representative Mike McLane (R-Dist. 55) is not convinced they will.
   “I understand they are looking at alternatives where that information would not be accessible to the government,” he said, “but I have not been given any information that leads me to believe that privacy advocates are misguided in their apprehensions.”
   McLane voiced another concern that was raised in 2008. Because people living in rural areas often drive longer distances for work or personal errands like grocery shopping, the mileage tax saddles them with a greater financial burden.
   Whitty, on the other hand, contends that some people living in urban areas face similarly long commutes. Furthermore, some rural-area citizens travel short distances for their work and shopping needs.
   “It’s all about individual circumstances,” he said.
   Whitty also noted that those who drive long distances on a regular basis still pay more taxes by virtue of consuming more fuel. McLane agrees, but used that fact to argue against a mileage tax.
   “I’m not sure how that method . . . is not in and of itself a mileage tax,” he said. “I don’t see why we have to account to the government for the miles we drive.”
   Senator Doug Whitsett opposes the mileage tax as well. While he acknowledged the privacy concerns as well as the high miles that some rural resident drive, he primarily finds fault with any tax increase for transportation.
   “I was concerned with raising the gas tax last time and the registration fees,” he said. “I am concerned again, in the midst of a recession, whether we should be exploring this idea as a reasonable idea. Enacting another tax at this time might not be the best thing to do.”
   Instead, Whitsett felt the state could better address transportation funding concerns by shoring up expenses.
   “There are two ways to address a budget shortfall,” he said. “One of them is to increase the revenue stream by raising taxes or creating a new fee, and the other is to find efficiencies and reduce the cost.”
   According to Shelley Snow, with ODOT public affairs, the department has already looked for ways to cut expenses.
   “We began a ‘right-sizing’ effort almost two years ago where we're doing things like not hiring a direct replacement for a retiring worker (depending on the position) and re-distributing those duties to others without hiring someone,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We recently combined a couple of similar funding programs (Bike/Ped and Transportation Enhancement) and the staff working those programs into a new section called Active Transportation, and it allows us to streamline the process and create some efficiencies. These kinds of efforts are continuing. I believe next steps are to look at programs in our Planning Division and Operations Division to see if we can do more of the combining/streamlining.”
   ODOT will launch the new pilot program this fall. In addition, the Road User Fee Task Force is working on legislation for the 2013 session that will apply the mileage tax to electronic and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
   “In the end, the task force has got some good folks working on it,” McLane said, “and I am anxious to see what their latest round of information is.”