Up to 5,000 cars and small trucks will help the state see how a vehicle-miles-driven (VMT) program might replace the fuel tax to fund road repair.
The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) launched a test pay-per-mile tax program on July 1, 2015 – and a pothole-pocked nation is watching to see if it is the wave of the future for generating road maintenance funds in lieu of traditional gas taxes.
There are plenty of doubters over whether a vehicle-miles-traveled replacement for the gas tax will work. Some cite privacy issues, others say it’s a disincentive to buy fuel efficient vehicles, particularly for people in rural areas who simply have to travel further for everything. But at the very least the scale of the test – with 5,000 volunteer motorists participating in three versions of tracking – should provide useful data.
Called OReGO, it enables volunteer test participants to use an electronic tracker that results in users being charged 1.5 cents per mile traveled (in the test phase it will compare those charges against taxes paid at the pump and either charge or refund the difference). The tracker, a Mileage Reporting Device (MRD), plugs into the vehicle’s OBD-II port; almost all cars manufactured since 1996 have this port on the driver’s side of the dashboard. Three different types of MRDs are in use from three different vendors and each offers different features:
- Azuga – GPS enabled, it credits drivers if their miles are driven out-of-state.
- ODOT’s Sanef – Not GPS enabled, therefore it draws information from the car’s odometer only (and offers no credit for out-of-state driving).
- Verizon Telematics – GPS enabled and therefore credits the driver for out-of-state miles traveled.
The program will limit the 5,000 participants in certain ways. Only cars and light-duty trucks may participate. Vehicles rated at 17 mpg or lower fuel efficiency will number 1,500, while those in the 17 to 22 mpg category will also number 1,500, and the remaining 2,000 cars will be have 22+ mpg ratings. All-electric vehicles, diesel vehicles built before 2006, vehicles that weigh more than 10,000 pounds and motorcycles will not be in this test program. The per-mile vehicle charge was set at 1.5 cents by the state legislature to be revenue neutral, meaning it should roughly correspond with gas taxes as generated in a traditional, all-fuel combustion engine vehicle.
This approach to generating funds for road maintenance may be an answer to nationally perplexing problem, that of declining gas tax revenues. As reported previously in Pothole.info, increasing fuel efficiency has significantly cut into gas taxes, which formerly provided a rough correlation to road usage.
A preliminary, functional test of the system in 2013 found that the technology worked and that users were not significantly challenged by it. It also gave some indication how user concerns, such as how such a system might penalize rural drivers whose mileage is naturally higher, might be mitigated. One volunteer in that program, whose job required her to drive 30,000 miles per year, found that the cost increase was only $2 per month.
“This is about fairness,” said the volunteer, who also noted that road quality is important to her. “Oregon is on the cutting edge of this conversation…As new forms of transportation become more common, like all-electric cars, we must make sure Oregon’s funding system is equitable and everyone is paying their fair share to maintain, preserve and improve our state’s roads and bridges.”
Another argument is that it may impact lower-income drivers or small business owners – many of whom drive fuel-inefficient cargo vans and pickup trucks – to a greater degree. But the ODOT public information officer, Michelle D. Godfrey, explains that older, less fuel efficient “gas hogs” are more typically driven by lower-income individuals who effectively bear a bigger burden of road maintenance than owners of hybrid and all-electric vehicles, even though the latter use the roads just as much. She adds, “Should the small business owner be penalized for conducting business? Because that is how the equation ends up with the current gas tax.”
Another user from the 2013 pre-test, Art James, who works in ODOT’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and is tasked with setting up electric vehicle charging stations in the state (and thus is familiar with the controversy), summarized what he thinks about testing the program on a broader scale in 2015: “Oregon’s transportation funding system must also evolve to keep pace. The current system of funding maintenance and preservation of roads and bridges is unsustainable.”