New Tax? Drive More Miles, Pay More Money

"It's still a pretty new idea," Reed said. "It's catching on nationally because we do have this shortage of funding in the gas tax."

In September, the federal government had to pump $8 billion into the Highway Trust Fund because of a shortfall created by declining gas tax revenues.

The issue is likely to hit center stage this summer when the 6-year-old legislation dealing with the highway fund and the 18.4-cent a gallon gasoline tax comes up for reauthorization. (States charge about 20 cents extra for each gallon of gas purchased.)

Robert Puentes, a senior fellow studying transportation at the Brookings Institute, said that Americans are driving less, using more fuel-efficient cars and that gasoline taxes haven't been raised fast enough. At the same time, the demand for additional highway spending has never been higher.

"So it's a real perfect storm when it comes to transportation funding," Puentes said.

The country is heavily dependent on the fuel tax, Puentes said, and a vehicle-mile-traveled fee "is exactly the type of solution we should be talking about.

"Gasoline being consumed is less. That on the surface is not a bad thing. We've been talking about energy dependence for years and years and years and here we're finally starting to make inroads." he said. "But it has this dramatic impact on transportation funding."

But even the most vocal advocates acknowledge that vehicle-miles-traveled fees could be a decade away from reality.

For now, Oregon is the leader.

State Sen. Bruce Starr, a Republican who then headed a House transportation committee, drove a fuel-cell concept car that Ford was showing off in 2001.

"It got me thinking: 'Wow, this is interesting,'" Starr said. "How are we are going to pay for roads, bridges when people are driving in vehicles that aren't using gasoline?"

So, he formed a committee to study the issue, and one of its suggestions was replacing the gas tax with one based on how much motorists drive.

In April 2006, the state launched a 12-month pilot program after getting 299 drivers to volunteer. Each car was given a special transmitter that tracked how many miles were driven within Oregon, and at what times.

Cars Would Need Expensive Transponders

Every time the drivers filled up at two of the participating gas stations, the device would automatically calculate how many miles they drove. Instead of being charged Oregon's 24-cents-a-gallon gas tax, the motorists were charged 1.2 cents for each mile driven.

"Ultimately, you pay for the mileage that you drive," Starr said. "We made it really clear that our pilot was revenue-neutral. We didn't want to raise more taxes from Oregon drivers but just to test the concept."

At the end of the pilot, 91 percent of the volunteers said they would agree to continue paying the mileage fee in lieu of the gas tax if the program were extended statewide.

The catch for Oregon: Retrofitting the vehicles with the devices was extremely costly. Starr said that if a vehicle-miles-traveled tax is ever permanently implemented, the automakers would have to be required to install the transponders in all new cars.

"It's something that needs to be addressed at the federal level," Starr said. "It really makes very little sense for one state on its own to implement a VMT."

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