Early participants are mostly in the Portland metro area

REVIEW FILE PHOTO - Evening rush hour starts to jam in both directions on I-205 in Clackamas County. Since 2001, the state has been searching for options to charge people for using Oregons roads and highways. A state pilot program launched in July to charge Oregon drivers based on the amount they drive has roughly 900 participants, most of those in the Portland metropolitan area.

Officials had hoped to enroll up to 5,000 people in the pay-by-the-mile program, the first of its kind in the nation. Participants sign up with one of three private vendors, then install an electronic device that enables the company to track their mileage and collect fees.

“I think we all need to get more (participants) ... because the more we have, the better the data,” said Vicki Berger, chair of a task force overseeing the effort. Oregon Department of Transportation employees told the task force they are working on strategies to sign up more people.

Although more than 200 people enrolled in Multnomah County, the participation numbers for many counties remain in the single digits and several counties east of the Cascades have no participants. Tom Fuller, a spokesman for ODOT, said the agency is using various strategies to encourage more people to participate. For example, the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division now provides information about the program when people renew their licenses and registration.

“We’re working on creating more partnerships, working to get fleets into the test drive,” Fuller told the task force.

Fuller said the agency also wants to sign up people with underrepresented types of vehicles and from more areas of the state, “for example, to reach more eastern Oregonians.”

Oregon faces a long-term transportation funding dilemma because state and federal gas taxes currently provide about half the money for bridge, highway and other transportation projects. As people purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles, state officials expect gas tax revenue will decline in the future.

“When you realize that ... vehicles on the road are going to use less and less fuel and our funding is dependent on fuel taxes, the pressure to find something different is pretty high,” said ODOT spokeswoman Michelle Godfrey. “Costs of construction have increased dramatically so the money we do get in gas tax, even though it’s flat, is basically half of what we need.”

The gas tax, even though it’s flat, is basically half of what we need. — ODOT spokeswoman Michelle Godfrey

The department has been searching since 2001 for other options to charge people for using Oregon’s roads and highways, and lawmakers authorized the pilot project in a 2013 law. It was originally supposed to cost $2.8 million, according to a budget report for the legislation that authorized the program, Senate Bill 810. The budget has since increased to $8.1 million through the end of this year, and the state could spend a total of $12.7 million by mid-2017, although Godfrey said ODOT expects the project to come in under that budget.

The state could incur additional costs in the future because the pilot will continue indefinitely until lawmakers decide whether to make it mandatory.

One problem with a pay-by-the-mile road fee is that it is more expensive to administer than the gas tax. ODOT officials have suggested that one way to address this might be to use the mileage fee to replace not only the gas tax but also license, vehicle registration and other fees, which carry higher administrative costs.

Critics of the pilot project have said it benefits drivers of low-mpg vehicles that produce more pollution and penalizes drivers of more fuel-efficient vehicles, and lawmakers including state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, have raised concerns about the cost and other aspects of the program.

In July, Willamette Week reported that legislators questioned ODOT officials’ decisions to send Jim Whitty, manager of the agency’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding, on more than 100 trips during the last decade, including to Washington, D.C., Brussels, London, Barcelona, Singapore and Australia. The state paid $65,000 of Whitty’s travel costs, with the remainder picked up by conference sponsors who were not identified in the newspaper article.

Whitty has announced he plans to resign from the agency at the end of this year.

“I’m an innovator and there comes a point where the program becomes more governmental,” Whitty said. “We’ve reached that point. My services are not as needed at this stage going forward.”

The state still needs someone to manage the office, however, and Whitty said ODOT will recruit for the position.

“I don’t know where I’ll be working (or) what I’ll be doing,” Whitty said.

However, California could soon be looking for people to help start a similar road user fee project. The state is preparing to launch a pay-by-the-mile pilot program in July 2016 that could build on Oregon’s work and even use the same private vendors who are administering the Oregon program, Whitty said.

“All the bugs will be worked out by July 2016,” Whitty said, referring to the vendors’ technology, “so they’ll use ours.”

Whitty did not rule out that he might work on the California program. “We’ll see,” Whitty said.