Gas tax blues: Meet the new tax, same as the old tax?

The wheels of officialdom are moving inexorably toward a mileage tax to fund needed road repairs. While the idea is still in the talking stages, the talk is more persistent and we can’t help but feel the question now is what shape that plan will take, not whether it will happen at all.

The idea has been percolating for some time. The intent is to raise money for highway and roadwork as our existing gas tax program lags behind the needs.

As reported on Oregonlive. Com, a legislative task force is mulling the ideas. That comes in the wake of a state Department of Transportation pilot project, which began a year ago, to test the mileage system. The pilot project used voluntary signups, but enrollment, despite a spendy promotion campaign, fell short of what state officials hoped to attain by now.

Yet as that program inches ahead, we have to acknowledge several factors are driving the push for change. Increasing fuel efficiency in newer cars means many drivers pay less gas tax for the miles they drive, and with the advent of electric cars, some drivers pay no gas tax at all. Officials argue that these vehicles still use the roads, and thus should share in the maintenance.

We can’t argue against the need for funding to maintain our road system; good highways and streets are crucial for our economy. The gas tax also is a lifeline for our cities, which get a share for upkeep of local roads.

Given trends in car design and road usage, there’s definitely a need to update our gas tax-based road funding formula.

But the devil is in the details. The state task force is expected to release its recommendations in September. Will that body advise replacing the gas tax, or layering mileage onto the formula? The former likely would trigger a major overhaul of state policy and procedures, while the latter undoubtedly would be unpopular – Who likes to see a new tax added to the heap?

Whatever system legislators propose, we urge them to consider the economics of life in the rural areas of the state. Long-distance driving is not an option in places like Malheur County, but a requirement not just for commerce, but our personal, business and medical needs. The new formula must balance often diverse interests – rural and urban, commercial and personal – and that is not apt to be an easy act. – SC