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November 23, 2014

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Oregon’s plan to replace gas tax is creepy, but worth doing

The state of Oregon is proposing an idea both brilliant and creepy: It wants to install monitoring devices in each resident’s automobile, tracking where they drive and taxing them by the mile. In the wake of Edward Snowden’s numerous revelations about spying by the National Security Agency, the scheme leaves many appalled. But it could just work.

Oregon, like Massachusetts, taxes motor fuels. It uses the revenues raised to maintain its roads and bridges. The motor fuel tax is a kind of user fee. Rather than everyone being charged for roadways, the burden falls on motorists. And even better, since the more you drive the more you pay, the burden falls heaviest on those who use the roads the most.

All of this once seemed sensible because the amount of fuel drivers purchased was a roughly accurate measure of how much they drove. But that’s changing. Drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles such as hybrids are, in effect, paying far less per mile traveled than are those using conventional cars. And those driving electric vehicles are in fact paying nothing. In Massachusetts, for example, the gas tax is 24 cents a gallon. A Bay State car getting 20 miles per gallon is paying 1.2 cents a mile. But a hybrid fetching 50 miles per gallon is paying less than half a cent per mile driven.

If you think of the fuels tax as a mechanism for encouraging energy conservation, those numbers probably delight you. But new fuel-efficient cars mean gasoline consumption is already dropping, and as state roadway planners look ahead to even tougher federal mileage mandates, they worry that eventually revenues will be far less than they need.

So why not tax motorists directly for the miles they drive — a far fairer system than what we have now?

That’s what Oregon is trying to do, a first-in-the-nation experiment.

Of course, if you’re prone to just a little bit of paranoia — and who isn’t these days? — the first thing that comes to mind is that now the government will be tracking your whereabouts any time you drive. Big Brother will be taking another giant step forward.

It’s a reasonable worry, so much so that Oregon requires that participating drivers can opt out of tracking devices and simply pay by taking a reading from their odometers (meaning, however, they’d be paying for out-of-state travel). And the state has also put in place a tough set of privacy requirements, including that personally identifiable information has to be destroyed within 30 days. Even the American Civil Liberties Union, which had originally expressed reservations, has now signed off.

Oregon’s tentative steps forward suggest the way we need to start approaching our fears about technology and privacy. EZ Pass transponders make toll collection simple, but they can also be used to figure out whether we’ve been speeding. Monitoring cameras help identify criminals, but could also make our daily lives grist for voyeurs. Drones, Facebook, Twitter, Google Glass, and smartphone apps all offer great benefits — as well as enormous risks.

The solution is legislation and regulation that robustly protects privacy and sharply limits the uses to which information can be put. Technology isn’t going away — nor should it. But careful approaches such as that taken by Oregon mean that one day we might all be paying road-mile fees — and not think twice about it.

Tom Keane is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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