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Atlantic CityLab: Feds Should Follow Oregon On Highway Funding

With states bracing for the possible end of the Highway Trust Fund, some are looking to Oregon’s evolving pay-per-mile program as a possible model for funding the nation’s highways.

The Highway Trust is funded by the federal gas tax, which hasn’t changed since 1993. The fund is drying up in large part because it hasn’t kept pace with inflation.

In Oregon specifically, there are a number of problems with transportation funding, including falling federal and state revenues, construction cost increases and more fuel-efficient cars on the road.

There are some short-term solutions, like adjusting the gas tax for inflation, or finding ways to make construction costs cheaper, but The Atlantic’s CityLab reports that Oregon’s per-mile charging program may be a model that other states could replicate.

You may have heard about the program last year when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 810, aka the “Road Usage Charge Program,” which allows the Oregon Department of Transportation to set up a new system that will track a driver’s mileage. Drivers then pay taxes on the distance they travel, at about 1.5 cents per mile. Annually, you’d pay about $210 if you’re traveling 14,000 miles a year.

CityLab’s Eric Jaffe notes that while the current system is “fundamentally broken,” the Oregon system’s beauty is its “flexibility”:

First is the way people pay. As Oregon learned over time, some people are scared to have government track all the mileage they drive. Fair enough. So the state offers five levels of mileage-based payment options, from a simple odometer reading to precise GPS monitoring via smartphones. There are benefits to the more invasive option — namely, the GPS knows when you’re on private roads, which means you aren’t charged for that mileage — but the point is that options exist to suit everyone’s privacy tastes.

Next year, ODOT will roll out a volunteer-based program for reporting driven miles.

The rate will eventually be adjusted for vehicles that would be putting more wear on the roads, like heavy trucks or cars driving during rush-hour. There will be some bugs to work out as well, such as how to deal with the road wear done by out-of-state drivers. 

Those problems are surmountable, however, and are likely better than the alternative of federal funds disappearing entirely.

Jaffe argues that using Oregon’s model nationally would make drivers more aware of how their driving habits affect roads, and lead them to adjust their mileage in response to their expenses.

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