Oregon Department of Transportation (DOT) officials are embarking on a long and winding road they hope will help fill the state's soon-to-be dwindling highway maintenance coffers.

Gas tax revenue is critical to Oregon's road upkeep since the funds generally make up 60 percent to 70 percent -- depending on federal contributions -- of the DOT's $967 million annual road maintenance budget.

Some legislators say changing the standard gas tax to a road-user fee is necessary because gas taxes generate less revenue as vehicles become more fuel-efficient and road-upkeep costs continue to escalate. But the suggestion of implementing a GPS-based road-user fee program -- lauded as trailblazing by some -- unleashed a flood of criticism from individuals and groups fearing the effort would facilitate an Orwellian human-tracking system.

Advanced Preparation

On Nov. 30, 2001, Oregon State Sen.Bruce Starr introduced legislation establishing the Road User Fee Task Force. The task force, headed by attorney Jim Whitty, discussed how the state could recoup gas tax funds it feared would soon decline.

Whitty said Oregon has not raised its 24 cent per gallon gas tax since 1991. As cars become more fuel efficient -- diminishing gas tax revenue -- and the costs of raw materials and labor rise, DOT officials fear they may not be able to maintain state roadways.

In the next three years, a barrage of high-mileage gas-electric hybrid vehicles is slated to hit the market. General Motors, Ford and Daimler-Chrysler will begin selling established car models with the hybrid option that will compete with Honda's hybrid Civic and Insight, and Toyota's Prius -- which already are selling well -- for mileage conscious buyers.

Researchers say high-mileage fuel cell engines may begin appearing in American vehicles within the decade.

"We've done some economic research, and we anticipate the gas tax will flatten in 2013 and permanently drop off in 2014," Whitty said. "We don't want to be hurt by what's going to happen. The roads still have to be paid for."

Raising Road Revenue

Oregon considered 28 different revenue raising mechanisms, explained Whitty. "We settled on the most critical broad-based mechanism: a vehicle miles traveled [VMT] fee."

Such a fee would tax drivers on each mile traveled in the state. At first, the task force toyed with the idea of simply checking residents' odometers every two years or so, but dismissed the plan as too costly.

After much consideration, the group realized "there's technology than can operate like an electronic odometer," said Whitty. "That's where GPS came in."

The task force's final report suggested testing two different mileage tracking systems: one involving an "odometer tag," the other relying on a GPS device.

For more than a year, David Porter and David Kim, two professors at Oregon State University, have been developing a prototype GPS mileage-data unit and an odometer-based mileage collection system.

The wallet-sized GPS device would be mounted inside a vehicle's engine compartment or under the dashboard. The system also requires an antenna for receiving information from GPS satellites and transmitting mileage data to readers at gas stations.

The readers would electronically pull miles-traveled information from drivers' GPS units or odometer tags, apply the proposed 1.25 cent per mile tax and add that amount directly to their gasoline purchase.

Too Much Information?

Whitty said he thinks most Oregon residents see the need for road maintenance. Whether they're ready to embrace the technology needed to implement the system may be another matter. From the moment GPS technology was mentioned in connection with a road-user tax, a variety of privacy groups have been crying foul.

Critics raised concerns: Can on-board GPS units act as human tracking devices? Will the technology result in some sort of surreptitious Big Brother scenario?

Kris Middaugh  |  Staff Writer