VANCOUVER, Wash. – Even though Anne Haley lives in Walla Walla, she is taking part in an Oregon pilot project, testing technology that would charge drivers for every mile they drive on public roads.
She spends a lot of time driving in and out of Portland.
“So this is a real-life situation for me,” Haley said.
In fact, about 20 Washington residents – most of them tied to the state’s transportation system – are voluntarily taking part in Oregon’s pilot. The road-use charge is considered a possible alternative to the gas tax, which will generate less and less money as cars become more fuel efficient.
“We can learn from the information that they glean from their early tests and hopefully apply it here in Washington state,” said Jeff Doyle, director of Public-Private Partnerships at the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
Pilot-project volunteers plugged a small device into the diagnostic port below their steering wheels. In Haley’s vehicle, that device uses GPS to keep track of how many miles she drives and it does not count miles driven in Oregon.
Once a month, she receives a bill charging her 1.5 cents a mile, then offsetting her total by the amount she already paid in gas tax. During her first month, the amount of gas tax paid was slightly more than her road-use charge, so she received a slight refund.
Oregon is currently testing a few methods. A couple of them use GPS to track how many miles people drive, but privacy concerns also prompted non-GPS options, including one device that simply acts like an odometer.
Starting in 2015, Oregon could implement a road-use charge for new vehicles getting 55 miles a gallon or higher. That would include electric cars, which currently pay no gas tax.
Some electric-car owners feel they should be immune from a gas-tax substitute, but others want to pay their “fair share,” said Steven Lough, president of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association.
Electric-car owners in Washington just started paying a yearly flat fee of $100 this year. That does not sit well with Jeff Finn because his family owns two electric cars.
“We’re paying more than what I consider our fair share,” he said.
Finn and Lough would rather see a pay-per-mile system like the one being tested in Oregon.
“There’s no reason why all cars should not be taxed by the amount they use the road,” Lough said.
Washington officials said Oregon’s pilot proves that the technology works, but now they must spend years researching another key question: “Is this appropriate for the state of Washington?” Haley asked.
Drivers have already expressed concerns about privacy and the impact on rural drivers, who often drive farther to get what they need. (Early research suggests rural drivers might save money paying a road-use charge instead of the gas tax.)
“All those issues have to be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction before we can go back to the legislature and say, ‘We think this is a worthwhile option,’” WSDOT’s Doyle said.
Doyle estimated that Washington is at least 5 years behind Oregon when it comes to exploring gas-tax alternatives.
It is not an urgent issue, but with new cars and trucks expected to get 55 miles a gallon by 2025, it’s a looming problem that will someday affect every driver on both sides of the Columbia River.