A state pilot program launched in July to charge Oregon drivers based on the amount they drive has roughly 900 participants, mostly in the Portland metropolitan area.

But 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 mileage and collect fees.

“I think we all need to get more (participants) in because the more we have, the better the data,” said Vicki Berger, chairwoman of a task force overseeing the effort. Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) employees told the task force last week 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 who lives in Newberg and also serves as a pastor, 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 under-represented 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 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 suggested during the task force meeting 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. State Rep. John Davis (R-Wilsonville) said he appreciated the suggestion because otherwise, he would be skeptical of the road user fee given the high administrative costs.

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

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