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Ore. Rep. floats mileage fee to replace gas tax



 

On July 23, Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced legislation that would fund a pilot program demonstrating the potential viability of replacing a national gas tax with a national mileage fee to generate more money for the construction of highways.

 

Opponents say the mileage fee would increase taxes, but Blumenauer said the increase is critical to ensure that federal funds set aside for highways do not go into deficit.

The Vehicle Miles Traveled program would track each car’s mileage though a GPS installed in each vehicle and collect the number of miles traveled through an electronic reader every time a vehicle filled up the tank a gas station.

This type of pilot program has already been tested in Oregon, along with a few other states. In November 2007, 260 Portland residents volunteered to have a mileage-tracking device installed in their cars as a VMT program trial run. Because the program was only meant to run statewide, the GPS excluded any miles traveled outside of Oregon.

“While the report concluded that the mileage fee concept was a feasible idea,” Oregon Department of Transportation spokesperson Dave Thompson said, “It showed that the VMT program still needed a lot more work to refine the technology involved.” Thompson sees the program working better as a national program than in individual states, in order to gain an adequate amount of funding.

The federal gas tax is about 18.4 cents per gallon and finances the Federal Highway Trust Fund, a sum of revenue used to “help build and improve the Interstate System and roads and bridges that are eligible for federal aid,” according to the Federal Highway Administration. The DOT says the current revenue is said to be inefficient to maintain the nation’s roadways.

“We cannot wait to invest in our nation’s roads, bridges, and public transit,” Rep. Blumenauer said in his July 23 press release. “America’s infrastructure needs critical investments now, and with the highway trust fund flirting with a dangerous deficit, we need innovative solutions that will create a steady source of revenue.”

Pierce Armstrong, a University graduate student and transportation department intern, is also interested in the VMT fee providing a new source of funding. “Most of the Department of Transportation’s money gained from the gas tax goes towards smaller, short-term projects,” Armstrong said. “In order to permanently keep up national roads and bridges, we need another form of revenue, which could be found in the VMT fee.”

While it may seem like a necessity to some, others believe that the VMT tax could push the country further into economic stagnation. College Republicans spokesperson Demic Tipitino believes the tax would simply act as a “quick fix” to the DOT’s financial problems. The tax “not only targets those who can least afford it, it is targeted at the wrong people,” Tipitino said.

The idea of planting a GPS device in every car tracking its mileage leads to a question of privacy. Oregon’s pilot program concluded that while a car’s mileage would be reported to the government, the location of the vehicle would be undisclosed. Thompson admitted that the process of the tax-paying drivers not having involvement with the in-car technology is still not entirely worked out.

If the VMT legislation passes, it will still take a fair amount of time before the program is up and running nationally. Although the program would ultimately increase revenue, it would require initial funding to install the new vehicle technology and form official councils to lead the project.

Armstrong, along with College Democrats President Ryan McCarrel, believes this money would have to come from a temporarily increased national gas tax. “Our primary concern should be making sure we can fund this program, even if raising gas taxes may not be the most popular process,” McCarrel said. “In the mean time, we need to continue encouraging the sale of electric and hybrid vehicles, bringing down carbon emissions and leading towards a sustainable plan for the future.”

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