Oregon's per-mile driving tax program lacks driver participation

By Charlie Morasch, Land Line contributing writer | 10/6/2015

Oregon has gained a reputation for starting and embracing cultural trends. Microbreweries and organic foods have become as synonymous with the state as its Oregon Ducks football team. But, judging by recent participation levels, the state’s pilot program for a by-the-mile vehicle tax is about as trendy as parachute pants.

The Oregon Department of Transportation reported to a state task force this week that a goal of enrolling 5,000 drivers in a pilot program to test the first pay-by-the-mile tax has drawn only 900 Oregon citizens.

The program is reportedly the first such vehicle miles tax program for passenger cars in the United States.

The Oregon DOT told a task force in Salem, Ore., that most pilot program participants are in the Portland metropolitan area, the East Oregonian reported. No enrollees exist east of the Cascade Mountains.

The Oregon DOT says bridge, highway and other programs funded through state and federal gas taxes are only half-funded as drivers in the state transition to vehicles with increased fuel mileage. The funding problem is expected to get worse as fuel mileage increases.

According to the East Oregonian, the pilot program was originally planned to cost $2.8 million, though that cost has jumped to $8.1 million through 2015 and may rack up $12.7 million by 2017.

The program charges participants 1.5 cents per mile and uses GPS technology or pay at the pump via a wireless transponder. It costs more to administer than gas taxes.

Truckers driving in Oregon already pay a tax based on weight and distance traveled.

OOIDA opposes changing or replacing the current system of collecting user fees on fuel taxes. Association representatives have said it’s unnecessary to create a new bureaucracy to create fees.

For what it’s worth, one Oregon DOT official is leaving his post precisely because of its nature as a bureaucracy.

Jim Whitty, manager of the Oregon DOT’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding, told the task force he was leaving at the end of 2015.

“I’m an innovator, and there comes a point where the program becomes more governmental,” Whitty said, according to the East Oregonian.

Coincidentally or not, Whitty reportedly came under fire in July when legislators questioned more than 100 trips he had taken during the last decade to Washington D.C., Brussels, London, Barcelona, Singapore and Australia. Taxpayers spent $65,000 for the trips, and unidentified conference sponsors picked up the rest of the tab.

The East Oregonian reported the current task force chair, Vicki Berger, will be traveling to Australia to discuss similar taxes being considered Down Under.

“It’s torture, you know,” the former state representative reportedly joked about the trips.

Whitty reportedly didn’t deny the possibility that he’d work with vendors to assist California in implementing its own vehicle miles tax by next July.

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