The Oregon Department of Transportation is worried about how it is going to pay for roads in the coming era of fuel-efficient automobiles.
Presently, drivers pay 24 cents per gallon in state fuel taxes.
That means a pickup that gets 12 miles to the gallon pays more fuel tax for the same distance than a hybrid car that gets 48 mpg.
ODOT worries that more hybrids will mean flat or declining revenues along with increased congestion.
As you might have surmised, this is a Portland/I-5 corridor problem, not a Baker County problem.
But we all share and share alike in funding the state's infrastructure. ODOT's proposed fix poses problems and opportunities for rural residents and ultimately isn't the option we'd advise lawmakers to pursue.
ODOT is currently testing a Global Positing System to track actual miles driven. If implemented someday, drivers of the larger and less fuel efficient vehicles necessary to rural ranching and living would both benefit and be punished.
On the one hand, that 12 mpg pickup pays 4 cents a mile in tax. The 48 mpg hybrid pays a 1/2 a cent a mile in tax. A per mile fee would level the playing field.
But the pickup driver might live in Keating and have to cover 20 miles just to get to the grocery store. The hybrid owner might live in the Portland suburbs and drive only 2 miles to get groceries, yet contribute more to congestion because of the local traffic patterns.
Let's face it: Hwy. 86 isn't Hwy. 217.
And out here, there are no busses or light rails as alternatives especially when roads are packed with winter snow and ice.
To complicate matters further, the per gallon tax would have to remain in place to capture revenue from older cars without the GPS technology and from visitors to the state. The result: an elaborate system of reimbursement for GPS-equipped drivers and doubtless more job security for ODOT bean counters.
This isn't to say that the state hasn't predicted a very likely scenario: that increased fuel economy will decrease revenues for road maintenance and construction.
However, we think ODOT should rely on proven and straightforward methods of collecting this revenue.
That means retaining the gas tax per gallon. And it means visiting options other states employ when it comes to motor vehicles: registration fees.
Whether you drive an 1986 Civic or a 2006 Hummer, your registration fee in Oregon remains the same. In California and Nevada, the registration fee is indexed to the value of the car.
Oregon should keep the gas tax, and consider modifying existing revenue streams like registration fees.
The GPS scheme seems too far-fetched as regards both implementation and operation.