As Oregonians (and the rest of the nation) purchase and drive more efficient vehicles, they will use less gasoline, emit less pollution, and save themselves money. But they will also pay less gas tax. Since gas taxes are used to maintain and repair a state's roads, the argument goes, they'll fall into disrepair as people buy less and less gas. So Oregon is proposing an additional tax on efficient car drivers to plug the gap.
The Associated Press reports that "In its upcoming session, the Oregon Legislature is expected to consider a bill to require drivers with a vehicle getting at least 55 miles per gallon of gasoline or its equivalent to pay a per-mile tax after 2015."
This is a terrible solution for the wrong problem.
First of all, you always try to tax that which you want less of—isn't that like the golden rule of taxation? Obviously, we want more fuel efficient cars on the road, not less. Implementing a tax on drivers who purchase greener, cleaner-burning cars is a great way to pervert a positive trend towards greener car ownership. At best, you'd nullify the incentive to buy cars that allow their owners to save money on fuel.
Second, the problem isn't even presented properly. It seems logical on its face: efficient auto owners benefit from well-maintained roads as much as anyone else, right? So why shouldn't they have to pay taxes to help keep them in shape?
Because they do way less damage to roads than big trucks, which cause the lion's share of the wear and tear on the streets. Reddit user piecemeal flagged this old Comptroller General's report to Congress, "Excessive Truck Weight: An Expensive Burden We Can No Longer Afford." It lays out the problem rather deftly:
… an automobile axle weighing 2,000 pounds would have to pass over an interstate highway 7,550 times to have the same impact as 20,000 pounds concentrated on a single truck axle. As a result, the impact of heavy trucks on pavement is disproportionately greater than the weight carried.
Although a five-axle tractor-trailer loaded to the current 80,000-pound Federal weight limit weighs about the same as 20 automobiles, the impact of the tractor-trailer is dramatically higher. Based on Association data, and confirmed by its officials, such a tractor-trailer has the same impact on an interstate highway as at least 9,600 automobiles.
The short of it is that big, heavy trucks are doing way more damage to the roads than passenger vehicles as it is, and they're not paying nearly enough in taxes to make up for the difference. Sure, truckers pay for more gas, as well as additional fees, but it's still not commensurate with the actual toll they take on public highways and streets. If Oregonian legislators were concerned about drivers all having to chip in for the damage they do to the roads, they'd raise taxes on heavy trucks first, and let people enjoy the benefits of purchasing vehicles that benefit society at large.