Editorial: State needs to sell mileage tax to voters

Oregon’s highways need help. So, too, do city streets and county roads. All are funded, at least in part, by money from the state Highway Fund, and it’s taking in less than it used to.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Oregon Department of Transportation is looking for alternatives to the state fuel taxes motorists pay every time they fill their gas tanks.

The most likely option under discussion is a 1.5-cent mileage tax, which will be tested by some 5,000 motorists this summer. Assuming the test goes well, the state then faces perhaps its largest hurdle: It must sell the tax to a majority of taxpayers or face the possibility of losing a potential referendum vote on it.

So far, polling on the likely change has shown decidedly mixed results.

There are good reasons, however, for Oregonians to favor the switch, assuming testing goes well. Chief among them: The state simply does not have the money to keep its roadways in shape.

The highway fund, which supplies about 60 percent of money for road maintenance and improvement in Oregon, comes largely from fuel taxes on cars and light trucks and from weight/mile taxes paid by large carriers. It also receives title and registration fees and those paid on drivers licenses.

But by the end of this year, state fuel tax revenue will have fallen by 7 percent in the last five years, and that trend is expected to continue.

Even today’s gas guzzlers are more efficient than their ancestors, and the growing use of hybrid and all-electric vehicles have combined to drive fuel tax revenue down. Federal fuel taxes are dropping for similar reasons.

The mileage tax offers what appears to be the best way to make up for lost revenue, and Oregon has worked with the ACLU to lessen privacy concerns about tracking mileage.

Oregon drivers — and voters — need to know that. They need to know, too, that a mileage tax will not simply become a new way to extract money from reluctant taxpayers.

And they need to be taught just how bad highways will become if State Highway Fund revenue continues to drop.

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