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Back-Seat Big Brother?
Tax-by-the-mile technology to be tested in Oregon.

Willamette Week Online | May 26, 2005

Oregon is on track to road-test whether black-box technology now in cars could one day be used to slap a tax on mileage.

No other state taxes by miles driven. And Oregon's civil libertarians and environmentalists aren't wasting any time in throwing spikes on the road to stop the concept.

The American Civil Liberties Union warns that the technology developed by a research team at Oregon State University is ripe for surveillance abuse.

"This is the government insisting that you have technology that can track you," says Andrea Meyer, legislative director for ACLU of Oregon.

And enviros question doing away with the current system that taxes gasoline on a per-gallon basis now, benefiting fuel-efficient vehicles and punishing inefficient ones.

"Fuel economy has gotten worse, not better," says Chris Hagerbaumer, of the Oregon Environmental Council. "As long as cars are consuming large amounts of fuel, [the state] should be able to tax that."

Here's the rationale for considering a tax on mileage:

Thirty percent of the Oregon Department of Transportation's budget now comes from a 24-cents-per-gallon gas tax levied at the pump. But reduced auto travel because of skyrocketing gas prices means less tax money to repair state highways.

State Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, proposed a road user fee task force when he was chairman of the House Transportation Committee in the 2001 Legislature. Since then, the 12-member task force-assembled from state legislators, ODOT reps and others-has secured a $2.1 million, six-year grant from the Federal Highway Administration to study the idea. The state Highway Trust Fund has chipped in another $770,000.

This March, 280 volunteers in Portland will equip their vehicles with mileage-recording technology (a modem-sized device that can either be mounted on the dash or stored in the trunk).

Mileage tax would be assessed at fueling stations, as the on-board mileage counter communicates with mileage readers at the pump. For the pilot program, the gas tax will be deducted from the total sale and replaced with the mileage tax.

Task-force administrator Jim Whitty, an ODOT manager, knows a mileage tax would be a tough pitch. But he suspects policy makers in Salem might "start getting desperate" as highway funds continue to dwindle.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 30 million cars and trucks already are equipped with "black boxes" that store information about speed and seat-belt use for use in accident investigations.

In answer to ACLU concerns, Whitty says the software doesn't record or retain a vehicle's location. Instead, the software computes mileage traveled and distinguishes between in- and out-of-state commuting through a Global Positioning System device that receives location information but doesn't transmit.

"People immediately make assumptions that are not true,'' Whitty says. "They think we haven't thought it through, but we have. We'll honor the public's need for privacy protection in this technology.''

But the ACLU points out that the federal grant requires the state to test the ability to count separately miles traveled in congested areas during rush-hour time periods to perhaps charge higher rates for travel in those zones. The only way for such a charge to work, the ACLU's Meyer says, is to know "where and when people are driving.''

In answer to environmentalists' fears, program supporters say different rates could be created for different types of automobiles. But they also note that environmentally friendly hybrid cars take up just as much highway space and create just as much wear and tear as any other automobile.

The test program has already had several delays.

The start date was pushed back after setbacks in finalizing the contract between Oregon State University and the state Transportation Department. And the test location was moved from Eugene to Portland after administrators could not work out an agreement with Eugene gas-station owners.

Oil bigwigs who oversee the franchises weren't thrilled about letting the state tinker with their fueling software.

Brian Doherty, a lobbyist for the Western States Petroleum Association, wonders whether the task force is any more likely to come to a deal in Portland. "We have grave concerns about opening up our proprietary computer systems," Doherty says.

But if the program proves workable, a pitch to the Oregon Legislature could come within a few years.

Says task-force chairman Starr: "We're in the process of getting in front of the curve."

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