OReGO or OReGO-away?

Oregon is in the process of launching OReGO, a pay-per-mile fee for cars. This fee, which was brought about by Senate Bill 810 back in July 2013, is being implemented as a way to replace the gas tax and is hoping to be a more fair way for all users of the roads to share in the expense of the roads. According to the OReGO website, “It’s a fair and sustainable way to fund road maintenance, preservation and improvements for all Oregonians.”

Gas taxes have been a dwindling source of revenue for the state, as more and more people purchase hybrids, electric cars, and other extremely fuel efficient vehicles. I think the pay-per-mile program might be a great way to combat this, simply because the gas tax allows those who can afford electric and hybrid cars to get away without paying nearly as much as those who can’t afford them. So essentially, the poorest of our state are paying for the roads while the wealthiest drive on them.

I recently bought a car as old as I am because it’s all I could afford, and it gets terrible gas mileage. Under the gas tax, I (a poor college student) would get penalized each time I fill up my tank for being poor and unable to afford a fancy hybrid or electric car. That isn’t a fair or efficient way to deal with road maintenance, and we all know Portland’s roads could use an overhaul.

It’s not that I think hybrid or electric cars are bad. I actually think they’re fantastic, and I hope they continue to be manufactured, for the sake of our planet. And also, 40–50 miles per gallon sounds a hell of a lot nicer than my roughly 18. But the gas tax is seriously benefitting those that can afford to fill up less often. I’m glad the state is doing something to fix it. But I don’t necessarily think the pay-per-mile program is the best solution either.

In order to track the number of miles driven, the OReGO website seems to have a couple of options lined up. Their website is conspicuously vague on this, but it seems that drivers will be required to put a Mileage Reporting Device in their car that tracks the number of miles driven. One option would track your location, “to determine whether you are driving inside or outside Oregon, and for the purposes of administrating their value-added services.” The other option would supposedly only track your miles driven and fuel consumed. I don’t know that I’m necessarily against putting a government-issued device in my car, but I would definitely avoid it if I could. I think most people are at least slightly wary of the idea.

The Oregon Department of Transportation will use a private vendor to handle all the accounting and reporting of miles. The OReGO website states, “There’s a cost to collect a road usage charge, which goes down incrementally depending on the number of program participants. For example, if, in the future, account managers also handle regional accounts covering Washington and California in addition to the accounts they manage for Oregon’s program, the overall collection cost would go down.” Okay, fine. But as of right now, Oregon is the only state to be implementing such a program. It’s going to cost a lot of money to switch over and maintain this new tax system, and the question has to be asked whether the program will generate enough money to be worth the cost.

My other major problem with this tax is that it might be a much larger burden for those living farther away from city centers. For example, in Portland, some of the wealthiest of our citizenry lives near downtown, in inner southeast or the Pearl District. They likely don’t drive far to work, so even a per-mile tax system might affect them less than those who have to commute from Gresham or Hillsboro. The OReGo website says, “If income level is a barrier to purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles, OReGO volunteers driving older or less fuel-efficient vehicles will typically pay less in road user charges than in fuel tax.” They don’t get any more specific than that on how a per-mile tax will be cheaper than a fuel tax, so I’m suspicious.

The pay-per-mile system is still in its pilot program stages. Right now they’re testing it with 5,000 volunteers and hope to expand from there. Although there are not really any definite dates in place for if or when this program will become mandatory state-wide.

I’m all for a program that can generate enough money to finally pave the gravel roads and terrifyingly big potholes out past 82nd Avenue. You know, the ones that are only traversable with a 4×4 truck. Because seriously, the fact that we have unpaved roads within city limits seems pretty unacceptable to me. If this program can’t accomplish that, than I think we should keep thinking of better ways to share the road-use burden equally.