Opinion: More questions than answers as lawmakers probe new transportation tax

It’s reasonable to examine taxation structure, but any changes need to be fair

September 29, 2023 5:29 am

Oklahoma lawmakers are examining the state's transportation taxation model. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) (This image cannot be republished without a subscription to Getty.)

Lawmakers stand at a crossroads as they wrestle with how to fund the state’s future transportation needs.

Cars are becoming more fuel efficient, and there’s a federal effort to push more consumers toward electric vehicles. 

Despite those shifts, Oklahoma leaders continue to rely heavily on the revenue generated from the state’s 20-cent gas tax to fund needed repairs to roads and bridges.

But as it turns out, legislators have been quietly exploring the idea of taxing Oklahoma drivers per mile instead of at the gas pump. 

As our own Mindy Ragan Wood reported, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s Fair Miles Oklahoma pilot project is moving forward. Under state legislation passed in 2021, the findings of the $3.9 million study will be finished by the end of the year.

The agency has recruited over 440 Oklahomans from 63 counties to voluntarily report their mileage by submitting photographs of their odometer, using an attached device or utilizing another tracker similar to OnStar. Volunteers then receive a mock bill of what they’d have to pay based on the miles driven.

No story that we’ve published in our first month has generated such a flurry of email responses that range from outrage and suspicion to support.

Based on reader feedback, Oklahomans definitely want good quality roads, but they don’t want to be the only ones paying for them. They want a fair and equitable system.

Oklahoma likes to brand itself as being located at America’s crossroads. Two major U.S. interstates connect in Oklahoma — east-west Interstate 40 and north-south Interstate 35.

Traditionally, that’s been a good thing. But as vehicles become more fuel-efficient, it is becoming more feasible to traverse the 331 miles of Oklahoma’s I-40 corridor or its roughly 230 mile stretch of I-35 without once stopping for gas.  

If a per-mile tax is implemented, Oklahomans want to know how the state will tax out-of-state motorists using our roadways. 

They also want to know they’re still going to have to pay for mileage when driving on other states’ roads for business or pleasure. How will Oklahoma differentiate travel?

There are also privacy concerns. How much access should state leaders have to information about where Oklahomans are traveling?

There are a lot of reasons why law enforcement, judges, domestic violence victims or even reporters, might not want a mileage tracking device installed in their vehicle.

Without a device, mileage reporting would seemingly be more on an honor system. How will Oklahoma enforce such reporting? 

And then there are reasonable concerns that Oklahomans won’t be able to afford another massive bill arriving at the end of each month. There’s a belief that the state’s pay-as-you-go at the pump system is just fine for most.

Electric vehicle owners are also chafing at the idea that they might face yet another fee in exchange for owning a more fuel-efficient vehicle.

Oklahoma is one of an estimated 33 states that already charges an electric vehicle fee in an effort to offset lost gas tax revenue. While some states charge considerably more — up to $225 — most Oklahomans pay about $110 a year under the current weight-based fee structure.

As the type of vehicles traversing Oklahoma’s roadways continue to change, it’s inherently reasonable to examine the state’s method of transportation taxation.

But right now, there are a lot more questions that need to be answered before lawmakers ditch the state’s long-held model. 

Any change needs to be fair to all Oklahomans.

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Janelle Stecklein
Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.