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The impending arrival of more efficient cars, including plug-in hybrids and fully electric sedans, has lawmakers considering alternatives to the gas tax. A commission created by Congress endorsed a change that would charge based on the number of miles you drive, not the number of gallons you buy. The Obama administration doesn't like this, but states are exploring different options. Reporter Tom Banse has more from western Oregon.
TOM BANSE: Portland motorist Walter Daggett has seen the future. Well, maybe -if the future includes a digital mileage counter and a roof-mounted antenna.
Mr. WALTER DAGGETT: There's a control unit that fit on the dash and that was very small, unobtrusive.
BANSE: This Mercedes owner was one of 300 volunteers in the largest field trial to date for mileage-based road financing. During the experiment, Daggett paid about a penny per mile driven instead of the state gas tax when he refueled.
Mr. DAGGETT: It was very user-friendly. It required nothing from me. Turn the engine on and it started the process.
BANSE: The state of Oregon organized the year-long experiment. The state says the field trial proved an odometer fee is viable. Not everyone is onboard, though. Salem, Oregon driver Wayne Brady worries about privacy and practicality. The retired engineer is a volunteer lobbyist for the Taxpayer Association of Oregon.
Mr. WAYNE BRADY (Taxpayer Association of Oregon): You have to install equipment on the cars. You have to install equipment at gas stations. And then the state has to have an agency to manage all this. The gas tax seems like such a simple solution. If they need more revenue, then raise the gasoline tax.
BANSE: A congressionally created panel did just recommend increasing the federal gas tax, but the bipartisan commission also called for the U.S. to shift to a mileage-based tax by the year 2020. Commission Chair Robert Atkinson says radical innovations in vehicle design make it necessary to find new ways to pay for road building and maintenance.
Dr. ROBERT ATKINSON (National Surface Transportation Finance Commission): We found that the sustainability of the fuel tax system is eroding and could erode much more rapidly than people anticipate.
BANSE: But before Atkinson even stepped before the microphones at the National Press Club, the Obama administration moved to park the idea. Presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs flatly rules out shifting to vehicle mileage charges.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I can weigh in on it and say that it is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration.
Mr. JIM WHITTY (Oregon Department of Transportation): I can't really guess what was going on in the minds of the people in the White House, but I suppose I would think that they were thinking we don't need another controversy right now.
BANSE: Jim Whitty managed the mileage tax pilot project at the Oregon Department of Transportation. He and the governor want to move forward with the technology. Minnesota is on the verge of starting its own field trials. And at least 17 other states have expressed interest in charging drivers by the mile. Still, Jim Whitty says federal involvement will be needed in the long run to get the automakers onboard. That's because it'd be simplest to embed mileage tracking technology at the factory.
Mr. WHITTY: A state theoretically can implement a mileage-based charge independently of the national government or any other state. It is much harder to do, however, because it's difficult to get the national industries that are necessary to develop this system to the table.
BANSE: Whitty is confident a system could be designed to alleviate concerns about privacy invasion. He also says it's possible people who drive fuel-efficient cars could pay a cheaper rate per mile. That would preserve price incentives for fuel conservation. But the hardest design challenge doesn't involve engineers: It's how to win public acceptance.
For NPR News, I'm Tom Banse in Portland, Oregon.
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