Oregon looks at per-mile tax on gas sippers

Fee aimed at vehicle owners getting 55+ miles per gallon

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SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- Oregon state officials are proposing an alternative tax for drivers who have bought efficient or electric vehicles that seldom or never stop at the gasoline pump -- where government has traditionally collected money to build and fix roads.

But the automaking industry calls the idea of mileage taxes another roadblock for efficient vehicles.

In its upcoming session, the Oregon Legislature is expected to consider a bill to require drivers with a vehicle getting at least 55 miles per gallon of gasoline or the equivalent to pay a per-mile tax after 2015.

Because it raises taxes, such legislation would need approval by three-fifths votes in both the House and Senate.

The tax would be based on mileage reports that could be made in a variety of ways, such as via smartphone app or GPS technology. Drivers could also pay a flat annual fee.

Lawmakers would have to decide on the rates. The proposed bill leaves that part blank.

Oregon transportation officials have been working for more than a decade to figure out how to pay for roads as cars get better gas mileage or use batteries. Those developments upset the current taxation route of charging taxes by the gallon at the pump, an approximate way of charging more for greater use of the roads.

"Everybody uses the road, and if some pay and some don't, then that's an unfair situation that's got to be resolved," said Jim Whitty of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Other states, including Washington, have looked at per-mile charges. A Washington law that would charge electric car owners an annual fee goes into effect in February.

Opponents of the Oregon proposal say it will hurt a new industry.

"It will be one more obstacle that the industry and auto dealers will face in convincing consumers to buy these new cars," said Paul Cosgrove, a lobbyist for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Oregon set up a task force in 2001 and did a pilot study in 2006 which raised privacy concerns -- the government could track cars as they use private roads or leave the state. Whitty said the options drivers would have in the new proposal address those concerns.

A second pilot project has involved about 50 participants, mostly state transportation officials and lawmakers. They pay 1.56 cents per mile and get a credit for any gasoline tax they paid at the pump.

Oregon Transportation Commissioner Mary Olson tracked whether she would be charged for miles on private roads by comparing results from her odometer and the GPS-based mileage reporting device. "It was scary accurate," she said. "I was very pleased."

The per-mile charge wouldn't apply to mileage on private or out-of-state roads.

A similar bill that applied to electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids didn't make it to the House floor in 2011.