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Bob Rubitschun: agency claims to incorporate community input but refused to put their proposals on ballot

COURTESY PHOTO: ODOT - Tolls may appear on Interstate 205 as soon as 2024.Bob RubitschunThe great ODOT has spoken. Thank you for publishing the article, "A future without a gas tax." At least now we know this state agency's previously unspoken reasoning behind tolling I-205.

Decades ago, automobile manufacturers were mandated by law to improve gas mileage and reduce emissions for their entire fleet of vehicles. They responded by producing vehicles that get impressive mileage and rarely fail a DEQ emissions test. The unintended consequences of this success was a reduction in per-vehicle gasoline tax revenue, ODOT's primary funding source. Even with Oregon's population growth and increased car travel, the gasoline tax is unable to keep up with the manufacturer's improvements.

To offset the revenue loss, ODOT wants a three-prong tax to generate revenue for road maintenance: 1) gasoline tax, 2) road usage charge per mile and 3) tolling selective highway segments. Under their system, it's feasible that a vehicle will pay multiple taxes (gas, road usage and tolling) to use the same stretch of road.

According to ODOT Director Kris Strickler, "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." On paper, this may seem good, but the reality, is it means car drivers will fund alternate transportation modes, walkways, bike paths and mass transit with their vehicle tolls. Sure, a small percentage will go to road maintenance, but the ultimate goal is to make driving vehicles so expensive that fewer vehicles are on the road. These costs will impact all Oregonians.

ODOT claims to incorporate community and stakeholder input but has repeatedly refused to support putting their proposals on the ballot for voters to decide for themselves. Their position in public meetings has been to let citizens voice their concerns and then do as they please.

I live in a small cul-de-sac community and nearly every new neighbor is from California. They are all good folks. When you talk with them about why they left California, their stories are eerily similar — it's too expensive to live there. They're not talking about real estate costs, since they all owned homes. They're talking about the endless usage fees to go anywhere or do anything. They paid general taxes and then paid fees, usage charges and tolls for everything else. They disliked the government's overreach. Is this starting to sound familiar?

Just a couple weeks ago ODOT announced, starting in May, that permits and fees would be required to use the Historic Columbia River Highway in the Columbia River Gorge. This area is an Oregon treasure that offers some of the best hiking in the state and now ODOT will control who gets to enjoy it. As an avid outdoor person, I find this appalling.

I see the handwriting on the wall — a toll here and a usage charge there and pretty soon Oregonians will no longer be able to do the things we enjoy without paying exorbitant fees. I'm a big believer in involving ordinary citizens in finding common-sense solutions to public policy problems. I ask our elected officials to allow Oregonians to participate in the democratic process and put these taxes, tolls and fees on the ballot. We just need the courage, brains and heart to do what is right. Oregonians want to live here, because there's no place like home.

Bob Rubitschun is an Oregon City resident.


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