This summer, Oregon’s legislature passed a bill creating a vehicle-miles-traveled fee. For those who recognize the shortcomings of the gas tax for charging for road use, it was a big victory. But the program authorized by the state is a modest one, creating a voluntary program for just 5,000 drivers of high-efficiency vehicles.
Jim Whitty reads a mileage transponder in Oregon. Photo: NPR
ODOT’s Jim Whitty, the architect of the program, has been on a whirlwind tour, responding to requests from states for more information about what they’re doing in Oregon and how they’re pulling it off. Last week he came to Washington, DC, to speak with members of Congress, key Senate committee aides, White House staff — and this reporter. I got answers to these 10 questions I had about the new plan.
How did Oregon get past privacy concerns? They bagged the idea of requiring any kind of GPS tracker. “You can’t mandate GPS and get this done,” Whitty said. “You’ve got to give people options that don’t involve GPS.” Though a GPS tracker isn’t really more of a violation of privacy than your cell phone or E-ZPass, the issue has been an obstacle to rational discussion about the pros and cons of a VMT system. In Oregon’s first pilot VMT program, they gave out trackers, but people didn’t like having government surveillance devices in their cars. For the second pilot, this past winter, people could pick their own device from the marketplace, and they found that more comfortable. Plus, there’s an option to just report mileage from the odometer.
Was it hard to convince the ACLU? Actually, “the negotiations were really easy,” Whitty said. With just a few meetings, they worked out a way to meet the privacy requirements of the ACLU and the operability requirements of ODOT. What they came up with became Section 9 of the bill, which limits who has access to the data and requires those who have access — including private sector vendors — to protect it. And then the data is destroyed 30 days after it’s required for payment processing or dispute resolution.
Is this another pilot? Technically, no — it’s a permanent program. But it’s a severely curtailed one. Aside from the limitations inherent in a system that doesn’t mandate GPS tracking, it’s also designed as a voluntary program for just 5,000 users. That’s not how permanent programs are designed. If this works, it will only make sense for it to someday be universal — at least for some vehicle types.
Will gas guzzlers ever be part of a VMT pricing scheme? Probably not. It would be a net revenue loser for the state, since those vehicles pay more in fuel taxes than they ever would in VMT fees. And drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles bristle at the idea that people who pollute more would get a better deal. The fact is, what sold the Oregon legislature on the VMT fee was the idea that it promotes fairness and requires all drivers — even those with electric cars — to pay for the infrastructure they use.