Oregon pilot program shifts gears on road tax

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PORTLAND (AP) — The Oregon Department of Transportation will test a road tax based on miles driven — and measured with help from smartphones — as an alternative to the gasoline tax.

The pilot program is part of a bigger plan by a state task force looking for alternatives to the gasoline tax and could add evidence that the fuel levy is not keeping up with demands of Oregon roads.

“People ask why don’t we just raise the gas tax, and it’s because that doesn’t apply to cars that are burning so little fuel,” said James Whitty, program manager of the pilot program. “The new plug-in Prius doesn’t burn that much fuel and more and more of these cars are operating on our roads. That means that the gas tax is falling on a smaller and smaller base.”

The department in 2006 started a similar pilot program using a global positioning system device to track mileage. That drew complaints that the government could spy on vehicles.

Privately manufactured new devices offer three options. Whitty said two are GPS based so drivers can avoid charges for driving out of state or on non-public roads, such as ranches. A third device simply counts miles.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, told The Oregonian he supports the proposed change.

“Everyone would like to retain the gas tax because it is tried and true and inexpensive to collect,” Bentz said. “But because of electric vehicles and hybrids and because of increasing (gas mileage) standards, the old way of managing is not working and needs to be appropriately modified.”

Oregon has 1,200 electric vehicles on the road and expects more.

Jeff Allen, executive director of Drive Oregon, a non-profit public-private partnership that promotes the electric vehicle industry, said if the Legislature targets only electric vehicles for a change in road taxes, the mileage fee will be unsuccessful. He said they could instead charge an additional $100 on the vehicle registration fee as Washington state does.

“The big concern is that people don’t want it to be another barrier to buy an electric car,” Allen said. “We don’t want anything that sends the signal that electric vehicles are being targeted.”

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