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A new mileage tax may replace the gas tax in Oregon. Oregon residents will be taxed by the number of miles travelled, as they travel along the state's highways like Highway 30 pictured here. Those not participating will face higher taxes at the pump.  (Source: Lyn Topinka)
A new ambitious high-tech effort to fairly distribute roadwork taxes proposed in Oregon, but can it overcome fears of government tracking?

Nobody likes to pay taxes, but they are reality of modern U.S. government as we know it.  However, if you have to pay taxes, you at least want them to be fair.  That's the mentality driving a rather revolutionary, albeit controversial, new plan in the state of Oregon.

In Oregon, as in other states, people have long complained about using fuel taxes to finance road work.  Such measures place a larger tax burden on those in professions requiring heavier vehicles.  So Oregon's Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) has developed a new plan -- pay by mileage.

Oregon, whose highways recently gained attention via a new solar project, is now looking to legislate the governor's plan.  The new legislation will provide Oregon with "a path to transition away from the gas tax as the central funding source for transportation" via a mileage tax implemented with the help of GPS satellites.

While the exact details are still being ironed out, Gov. Kulongoski's web page gives the basics of the plan.  In it he states, "As Oregonians drive less and demand more fuel-efficient vehicles, it is increasingly important that the state find a new way, other than the gas tax, to finance our transportation system."

He is creating a task force "to partner with auto manufacturers to refine technology that would enable Oregonians to pay for the transportation system based on how many miles they drive."  Key studies were performed in 2006 and 2007 that indicate that such a program would indeed be possible. 

In the 2007 test which lasted 10 months with 300 motorists at two service stations, drivers were taxed 1.2 cents per mile and were refunded the 24 cents a gallon state gas tax.  When the motorists got to the pump, their vehicles connected to government computers informing them of the mileage (calculated via GPS tracking) and issuing tax.  Equipment for the test came from Oregon State University.

While clever, the program faces one enormous thorny obstacle -- concerns over the loss of privacy. 

The governor's online outline states, "The governor is committed to ensuring that rural Oregon is not adversely affected and that privacy concerns are addressed."

Despite assurances from James Whitty, the ODOT official in charge of the project, that the new GPS system would not be used for continuous tracking of citizens' cars, many advocacy groups are outraged and many remain fearful.  The final report on the 2007 test deployment was conscious of this fear, stating, "The concept requires no transmission of vehicle travel locations, either in real time or of travel history.  Accordingly, no travel location points are stored within the vehicle or transmitted elsewhere. Thus there can be no ‘tracking’ of vehicle movements."

Advocates point out that the devices are not developed by Oregon, but rather by industry partners.  The program's policy page states, "ODOT would have no involvement in developing the on-vehicle devices, installing them in vehicles, maintaining them or having any other access to them except, perhaps, in situations involving tampering or similar fee evasion activities."

However, even if privacy concerns can be laid to rest, there will also be a large price tag associated with initially implementing the program, one which may give residents sticker shock.  An initial investment of $20M USD would be needed, according to the governor, just to see if the program was viable.  A full deployment would require GPS be gradually added to gas stations and to all vehicles in the state.

The proposal also calls for a punitive tax against those not adopting the new device -- the gas tax will continue for vehicles not equipped to pay the mileage tax, but it will be increased 2 cents.

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Who could possibly favor this?
By Yawgm0th on 12/31/2008 1:30:30 PM , Rating: 2
Anyone who values social, individual freedom -- perhaps the last true American value -- can't possibly be in favor of this. Regardless of what the government uses the data for or does not use it, it exists. An organization would have access to GPS data showing your movements. Certainly, the data can be analyzed and a relevant mileage value extrapolated, but the data showing one's locations still exists at some point. From a technical standpoint, even if all parties involved are trusted completely (which they ought not be), this is an indefensible security risk.

It is impossible to avoid privacy concerns and actually live in the information age, but government-mandated privacy risks and violations are inherently wrong. This proposal is an affront to American values regardless of how this is spun.

As explained in other comments, this doesn't even make taxing more "fair" since heavier vehicles do have a larger impact on roads. Regardless, the "fairness" of transportation funding is far more complicated than how far you drive or where you drive. It's a silly concept to begin with that only a hack of a legislator would have conceived.

So again, what group on the vast political spectrum supports this? It's an arbitrary tax that could be more effectively applied in other ways, causes major privacy concerns, and adds excessive overhead and bureaucracy. The Democratic governor supporting it doesn't fit the shoes of a Democrat or Republican -- restricting our right to privacy is certainly not a Democratic ideal (nor a d emocratic one) -- and the self-defeating unfair tax should irritate Democrats and Republicans alike. The only spot in the political ideology spectrum compatible with this nonsense is totalitarianism.

What kind of a fool could come up with or support this and think it adds fairness? Doubling the gas tax (which would be ridiculous) would be less of an affront to freedom and more fair.

RE: Who could possibly favor this?
By Suntan on 12/31/2008 2:42:50 PM , Rating: 2
Personally, I find people that actually use the word “affront” are a little shifty…

Tirade aside, Jim down at the county assessor’s office already knows where you live, how much you make what your wife does for a living, all the major purchases you’ve made in your life, etc. etc. Do you *really* think he cares where your car was parked last night?

Take it down just a little with the tinfoil.


RE: Who could possibly favor this?
By Yawgm0th on 12/31/2008 3:54:56 PM , Rating: 2
Knowing where I live and knowing where I am are two very different things. Being able to track me with GPS is a much more serious privacy concern. I want many people to know where I live, but I don't anyone to know where I am or where I have been at all times. If I'm going to permit the possibility because I want a feature (say, GPS on my phone), I will be trusting an organization or individual of my choosing with the full knowledge that this trust can be broken or any security method circumvented.

This law would force (this is important) me to either not drive (if I lived in Oregon) or to trust the government as well as another organization with very important private information. Even if I trust the government's intentions, I do not trust the security nor a commercial organizations intentions (since those are always profit, not to ensure my welfare or rights).

It is an affront to American principles because the government is in some way taking more control over our lives without any tangible benefit to us. It is a privacy concern no matter your perspective, and it's far from being a necessary or useful one.

In any case, my tinfoil hat is rarely worn and I realize worse things could certainly happen and that this system would probably not be a huge privacy concern in practice. My point was that there is nothing good about this. It is counter-productive to its advertised intentions, intrusive, expensive, and overall poorly thought out. In principle and practice it is flawed.

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