For many Americans it may seem like there’s constant road construction, yet the roads never seem to get better. We spend over $80 billion annually on road construction and that number continues to go up. So why doesn’t it make a dent in the number of potholes, asphalt cracks, and dangerously faded paint on the roads we travel? Some states are looking for alternative ways to fund road construction and are discussing road usage charges to offset the growing cost of road maintenance. But wait — shouldn’t the already exorbitant gas tax be covering that? You’d think so, until you stop to realize in many states the gas taxes haven’t gone up since the 1990’s. That’s why the state of Oregon is rolling out a volunteer road usage charge program.
Road Usage Charges (AKA Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax or VMT) have been discussed in Oregon since 2007. Once it was determined such a tax was feasible, Oregonian legislators began devising a per-mile traveled road usage charge for drivers of cars and trucks. This differs from VMT taxes in other countries like Austria, Germany, Poland, New Zealand, and Switzerland among others. In those countries, VMT, or road usage charges, are limited to diesel cars or trucks since they tend to damage the roads the most. Currently, Oregon’s road usage charge program utilizes 5,000 volunteers.
More than a dozen US states have implemented road usage charges as of 2015. Some of these cover only heavy vehicles, while others tax every car that uses the roads. Nine other states are said to have expressed interest in beginning a road usage charge program of their own to help fund road construction. States with harsh, cold winters are particularly vulnerable to road damage. What begins as a small crack is made bigger each year as rain or melted snow is trapped, then freezes causing the crack to expand. Before you know it, the road needs a complete redo.
How does Oregon’s road usage program work? Volunteers track their road usage in one of three ways. Drivers can opt to keep a daily diary of their mileage, which will later be audited by a professional. They also have the option to use a specialized odometer unit, which must be purchased specifically for this program. Or, drivers can elect to use a GPS device, which is probably the most convenient. Not surprisingly though, many drivers have expressed concern about handing over their driving data to the government. Spokeswoman Michelle Godfrey has maintained that no personal identifiers will be used in this program. Some citizens are understandably skeptical.
Regardless of the method of mileage tracking, participants in the program are charged 1.5 cents per mile driven. Participation in the road usage charge program will result in refund checks to offset gas taxes already paid. That sounds convoluted, and almost as if the existing gas taxes are a kind of an interest-free loan given to the state by anyone who buys gasoline. Time will tell if Oregon’s road usage charges program will cover the shortfall of revenue the existing gas tax cannot cover.