ODOT is planning for a future without the gas tax
COLUMN: Kris Strickler's KEEP OREGON MOVING
The Oregon Department of Transportation is working hard to reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn as a state.
That work includes building electric bike and vehicle infrastructure, funding transit agencies across the state, operating intercity transit lines, and investing hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure to help people walk and bike safely — and leave the car at home.
The work we're doing to address climate change and improve air quality across Oregon has great benefits, but also comes with a consequence — reduced funding for maintenance.
Road funding — including bridges, bike paths, and sidewalks — depends on the purchase of fuel. The fuels tax provided 42% of our state road and bridge funding in 2019. Other funding sources, from other taxes or from the federal government, largely cannot legally be spent on the maintenance of our existing transportation system.
As vehicles consume less fuel and drivers pay less in gas tax, funding for maintenance declines. And as road funding falls, state and local governments will be unable to maintain the transportation system that connects us to the places we live, work, and play. Road and bridge closures, congestion, and delays will become severe and persistent. Without a new funding source, our transportation system will fail.
That's why we've developed two alternative funding approaches to help us move past the gas tax. Neither of these approaches rely on the continued burning of fossil fuel, and both of them charge road users based on their actual use.
The first approach is road usage charging. This charges drivers for miles instead of fuel. It's a fair way to pay: People pay for the transportation system based on how much they use it.
ODOT has been testing road usage charging for almost 20 years. The fully operational, voluntary system, named OReGO, launched in 2015 and we've been running it successfully ever since.
That program is seeing a spike in enrollment as electric vehicle drivers opt in. Car owners are encouraged to check out myorego.org to learn more and to enroll. Participants can even do DEQ testing remotely because OReGO technology is able to scan your vehicle's pollution control system while driving.
Taking Oregon's lead, other states are considering charging by the mile, and members of Congress are exploring Oregon's approach as they grapple with similar funding declines at the national level.
The other approach to sustainably funding our transportation system is tolling. This approach has the benefit of reliably funding seismic, safety, and operational improvements while also managing congestion and reducing carbon emissions from transportation.
Our Urban Mobility Strategy outlines comprehensive steps to improve safety for people walking, biking, and driving, repair and upgrade bridges, and address bottlenecks in the Portland metro area.
The strategy includes variable rate tolling (also known as congestion pricing) as a funding mechanism and as a way to manage congestion. By applying a charge to road use, pricing can help encourage carpooling, traveling at off-peak hours, or using other non-driving options when possible.
The Oregon Transportation Commission directed that toll revenues collected on a highway be invested in that highway corridor. This means that those who pay the toll can be confident those tolls are invested in roads they walk, bike, and drive on, and in services they use.
The first projects toll revenues will fund, as directed by the Oregon Legislature, are seismic upgrades to the nine bridges along Interstate 205 and adding a third lane in Clackamas County. Future toll revenues may fund other projects around the region from transit improvements to adapting former highways to be more pedestrian- and neighborhood-oriented.
We are developing tolling options that incorporate community and stakeholder input. We want to ensure Oregonians of all backgrounds and income levels can benefit from a sustainably funded and modern transportation system. We're determined to design a system that works to correct the harms of the transportation system that disproportionately fall on the backs of lower-income communities and doesn't repeat the mistakes of the past. We will not design a system that increases those harms.
Together, we can move past fossil fuels and create a clean transportation system. Tolling and road usage charging will help provide sustainable funding to support our entire transportation system.
Kris Strickler is director of ODOT. Questions can be addressed to 866-Ask-ODOT.
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