From the “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” file, your favorite member of congress is being drawn into the federal gas tax-charged-by-the-mile debate. You know, stop collecting the 18.4 cent-a-gallon and replace it with one based on how far each of us drives.

In Oregon, as with so many other issues, we’re way ahead on this one. Which may be good or bad, depending where you stand on the idea. The Oregon pilot program, run a few years ago, found the scheme doable with certain considerations i.e. how far each of us drives, some individualized considerations for in-town or in-city drivers compared to many of us who roam the reaches of the far west and the Interstate and how the tax could be collected. Doable, yes. But no one has jumped up and said “Let’s start today!”

Now, some members of congress are reading our Oregon report, doing some test designs and starting to throw it out there for consideration.

The basic reason why it’s on the table now is because you and I have been more careful consumers of gasoline, buying more fuel efficient vehicles and driving less. Not that $4 a gallon gas won’t get our collective attentions. So, we’ve bought less of it. We should be rewarded for saving, right? The problem is that federal taxes going to national highway construction and repair are coming up short because those good habits reduce the tax income. And therein lies the reason this topic is in the “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don’t” file.

This idea could be compared to a large – very large- onion. You’ve got a couple hundred million consumers and their various driving needs to consider. Peeling away each layer of problems contained in the onion simply presents more problems. It’s one of those issues that can’t be dealt with using our government’s typical “one-size-fits-all” approach.

So, what would it cost us? Nobody really knows. The feds currently take in about $35 billion annually by the gallon. To keep up that pace, you’re probably looking at a penny-a-gallon built-in to start with. But, keep in mind, that $35 billion isn’t enough to keep up with highway construction needs. From 2008 to 2010, the government had to feed the Highway Trust Fund another $30 billion a year. So, the penny would likely turn into two-three pennies per mile to keep up with need.

Of course, some Republicans are already screaming, wanting to spending less on highways. They must not be driving I-5 or I-84 or I-90 or I-205. Or trying to drive across some of the federal bridges that are falling down. Maybe it’s those donor corporate jets that keep them above it all.

There are lots of details like whether the tax would be collected at the pump or billed by mail, number of axles your truck has – more axles would be less tax because of less road wear – whether you drive around town or long miles cross-country, if you drive a hybrid or a regular engine and on and on. All solvable with some proper planning.

GPS technology would work. Some people think that would amount to government tracking but it could be designed to avoid that. You might pay different rates for certain times of day or which roads you use. New cars might come with on-board computers . Lots of issues which, according to our Oregon tests, could be accommodated.

But, to me, the main issue to be solved is us driving long distances in the West. We don’t do it on purpose. It’s the different geography and fewer people. This could probably be handled by establishing zones. In Miami or Chicago, a zone might be 30 square miles. Around Pocatello, Tri Cities or Bend, that zone might stretch to 300 square miles. Differences would also have to take into consideration whether public transit is available. Lots and lots of variables that would require some major planning. But, again, doable.

You’re going to hear more about this approach to federal highway funding. A lot more. Those vocal Republican protesters aside, our highway system – local, state and federal – is crumbling like a lot of our infrastructure we’ve ignored while paying for a few unwinnable wars. Just the billion a month going into Iraq and Afghanistan would buy a lot of concrete and bridge steel. Add in, with the current “cut back” pressures on all levels of government, those bad highway conditions are only going to get worse faster without some action.

And here’s a comforting thought. Whatever system is designed for this by-the-mile-tax program, it’ll all be run by computers. All of it. From your own personal computer experience, is that going to make you sleep better at night?

Makes you long for the day when figuring your costs of travel by the mile was dependent on how much hay you fed the horse.

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