Road usage fee “option” coming to Oregon

July 9, 2013

Thanks to the recent passage of Senate Bill 810, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) will soon be authorized to assess a charge of 1.5 cents per mile for up to 5,000 cars and light commercial vehicles and issue an equivalent gas tax refund to those who volunteer for the new fuel tax alternative.  

Oregon Governor, John Kitzhaber, is expected to sign the bill into law. The bill calls for the system to be operational by July 1, 2015.

Like many more traditional tolling systems, this one will require some effort by participants and some administrative overhead on the part of the state. Vehicle owners must apply to participate in the program and, once accepted, use an approved metering technology that will track mileage.

The new measure assigns the state’s Department of Transportation a longer to-do list, including:

* Establishing the methods for recording and reporting the number of miles that subject vehicles travel on highways

* Considering the accuracy of the data collected, privacy options for persons liable for the per-mile road usage charge, the security of the technology, the resistance of the technology to tampering, the ability to audit compliance, and “other relevant factors that the department deems important.”

The DOT is also charged with establishing “at least one method of collecting and reporting the number of miles traveled by a subject vehicle that does not use vehicle location technology” and adopting standards for open system technologies.

The International Bridge,Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), the worldwide association representing toll facility owners and operators and the businesses that serve them, is among the first to celebrate the new highway funding concept.  In a press release, IBTTA’s executive director and CEO, Patrick D. Jones, called the bill’s passage, “A major victory for alternative forms of transportation funding across the country at both the state and federal level. 

“By the passage of this historic legislation paving the way for a voluntary road usage charge (RUC) system, Oregon has lived up to its pioneer history and established a new frontier in transportation funding,” he said. “This example gives momentum to the need for exploring alternative funding options, such that tolling provides, in addressing our national transportation infrastructure challenges.” 

According to IBTTA, Since 2000, gas tax revenues have declined significantly as a result of less driving, increased fuel efficiency and decreasing purchasing power.  As gas tax revenues dwindle, federal policymakers in the U.S. have had to divert $55 billion from the federal government’s general fund and other non-transportation funds to pay for infrastructure.  This is increasing pressure on transportation policy makers across the country to search for new, viable road financing options.” 

In January, IBTTA launched “Moving America Forward,” a national public awareness campaign highlighting the benefits of tolling among the public, policymakers and the media.

Tollroads News has taken a dissenting view, arguing that, “We prefer real tolls linked to a particular road and administered flexibility to operate that road as an independent business. Real tolls allow distinctions to be made in toll rates according to demand, to local conditions and highway costs and they allow different roads, bridges and tunnels to be financially self-supporting and accountable more directly to their customers, and to their investors….

“We'd frankly like to see revenues of state DOTs wither gracefully away with the gas tax and the major highways progressively turned over to toll road service providers. Publicly owned or privately owned, we don't care, so long as they are self-financing businesses whose revenues depend on satisfying customers with their service and providing options.”

The Statesman Journal reported that “implementing the voluntary program would cost an estimated $2.8 million in the 2013-15 biennium, which will be used to fund staffers, according to the bill’s fiscal note. Revenue from the program is expected to be minimal.” 

Many other states, not to mention Congress, are also searching for ways to fund highways, now that more fuel-efficient vehicles have left highway funds running on fumes.  Washington State, for example, is exploring charging electric vehicle owners an annual fee to make up for the fact that they no longer must pay fuel purchase taxes.  

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