Our Voice: Oregon test drives pay-by-mile program

Washington residents won’t have to look too far away to see what gas tax alternative may be coming down the road.

Our neighbor to the south plans to launch the first pay-by-mile tax program in the nation, and the experiment will be monitored closely by transportation officials throughout the country.

Beginning July 1, Oregon drivers will have the opportunity to pay a tax based on the miles they drive instead of how much gas they buy at the pump. The state is looking for 5,000 volunteers to participate.

The plan is designed to help make up for a decline in gas tax revenue as more fuel-efficient cars hit the roadways. Car owners who have chosen to help the environment by going green say the proposal unfairly targets owners of hybrid and electric vehicles.

But while their decision to buy an eco-friendly car is admirable, it does not mean they should get a pass on paying their share to maintain the roads all drivers use. It is not fair for owners of vehicles that use only gas or diesel to carry the bulk of that burden.

Everyone who drives should contribute to the upkeep of their state’s highways.

The Washington State Transportation Commission decided in December to recommend a similar program in our state, but Oregon is further along. Those who volunteer to participate will pay 1.5 cents for each mile traveled on public roads within Oregon.

The program is for all types of cars. For now, those participating in the experiment will still end up paying taxes when they buy gas. But depending on the type of car they drive, at the end of every month, they will either get a credit or a bill for the difference in the gas taxes bought at the pump. They also get a refund for the miles they drive on private property or out of state.

The miles will be monitored by devices that attach to the cars, with or without a GPS tracking system.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns a GPS system would invade privacy and collect data that could be used for other purposes than monitoring mileage.

In response, Oregon officials are allowing drivers to choose devices without a GPS program. For those who want the GPS system along with the device, the tracking information will be destroyed after a month.

In Washington, transportation officials also discussed using a smartphone application that would pair with a car’s Bluetooth network. Simply using odometer readings would not distinguish between public and private roads, so it would not be accurate.

With Oregon leading the way, Washington has a chance to see how the pay-by-mile experiment works before trying it here. Gas tax revenue is falling with the increase in fuel-efficient cars, and a different revenue source is needed to maintain the state’s highways.

The pay-by-mile experiment could be the answer, but we’ll let Oregon run the test drive.