At Issue: Why Oregon's Mileage Tax Doesn't Add Up (Opinion)

American streets may soon look like Havana, full of ancient cars that get 15 miles per gallon, predate pollution controls and don't require smog tests.

by / August 1, 2013
Low-emission vehicles would be penalized by Oregon's new vehicle mile tax system. iStockphoto iStockphoto

Oregon will run a voluntary vehicle miles traveled (VMT) taxation plan on 5,000 vehicles beginning in 2015. Here's how it will work:

You keep track of your mileage -- either by odometer or some kind of GPS meter. Oregon's gas tax is 30 cents per gallon which you will continue to pay, as well as 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax. However, when your mileage is computed and the tax calculated at 1.5 cents per mile, you can subtract the amount paid in Oregon gasoline tax. Save your receipts, please.

If you drive out of state or off road, then the mileage count ends. The thinking is that by 2015 a mobile GPS app will track non-taxed miles so those can also be subtracted from the total.

One reason for all the arithmetic is that nobody wants a state device installed in their car which tracks location. Oregon tried that back in 2006 but motorists objected. However, the state will need to verify mileage traveled somehow, either by checking odometers directly or having some kind of wireless reporting capability.

Ironically, electric vehicles will pay much more than they do now, and gas guzzlers will pay less, as they will pay 1.5 cents per mile instead of the former 30 cents per gallon. Big gas hogs could even get a refund.

So the system penalizes high-efficiency low-emission vehicles and rewards big vehicles with lousy mileage. With those backwards incentives, American streets may soon look like Havana, full of ancient cars that get 15 miles per gallon, predate pollution controls and thus don't require smog tests.

OK, assuming the technology works, and drivers put up with all the paperwork, all that adding and subtracting, verification, etc., does anyone believe that refunds will actually happen? Obviously clean air is not the object with VMT -- it's all about revenue, and if the pilot is successful, "voluntary" goes away and "mandatory" enters.  The next step is to raise the VMT from 1.5 cents to 2.5 or 3, etc.

If the public objects to the record-keeping and deducting and having to use some new tax preparation softare to figure out what they owe every three months, some legislator will come up with the bright idea of simplifying everything: "Let's just add the VMT to the 30 cents per gallon tax, and charge for out-of-state and off-road travel. That will solve the record-keeping complexity."

And thus the simplification leaves the state with two mobility taxes instead of one, an easier to understand tax scheme that penalizes everyone for daring to drive.

As the Duke of Wellington once said about his era's mode of transportation: "The railroad will only encourage the common people to move about needlessly." Of course he wasn't collecting railroad ticket tax.

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.