By Andy Metzger

State House News Service

BOSTON -- Massachusetts could follow close behind Oregon in pioneering the vehicle-miles-traveled alternative method of taxing drivers, if a bill before the Transportation Committee that is backed by a group of liberal legislators becomes law.

Sponsored by Rep. Carl Sciortino, a Medford Democrat, and Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, the bill (H 3142) would direct the Department of Transportation to launch a pilot program with at least 1,000 volunteers.

The method of taxation has been knocked by U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, among others because of concerns it would provide information to the government about each vehicle's travels.

"We take an opportunity to take a look at a whole range of things that I think you need to build support so that people feel comfortable with," Transportation Committee Senate Chairman Tom McGee told the News Service. He said, "I don't have really a position right now on what we're going to do on the committee on the bill, but I think it was really a healthy discussion today."

McGee said he visited Oregon, which he said underwent a limited pilot program for the new taxation system and is set to expand the pilot.

In 2012, an Oregon state official told the News Service the state had been seeking a vehicle-miles-traveled tax for a decade.

Rafael Mares, staff attorney at the environmental group Conservation Law Foundation, said the miles could be measured with a variety of privacy settings, and said Oregon uses various zones rather than pinpointing a driver's location: a heavily congested area with public transit, where the tax is greater; areas without public transit access where the miles are cheaper, and out-of-state, where the tax is not applied.

"The purpose of this study is to find out exactly that: 'Can it protect people's privacy?' " Mares told the committee. "Can it be a reliable technology and can there be public acceptance?"

Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, a North Adams Democrat, said people in her district often drive to work in New York and Vermont.

"They're really concerned about something like this," Cariddi said. She said, "They might be gassing up in New York."

Rep. Tim Madden, a Nantucket Democrat, and Rep. Chris Walsh, a Framingham Democrat who signed onto the bill, also reported hearing from constituents concerned with the proposal. Walsh suggested billing the program as similar to the Fast Lane transponder system that lets drivers breeze through tolls.

Farley-Bouvier and Mares stressed that the bill would create a voluntary pilot program, and said that participants would not pay any more than they currently pay under the current gas tax.

The gas tax, which was increased by 3 cents this year and tied to inflation, has been losing its ability to fund the roads even as the wear and tear has increased over the years, according to Mares.

"Since 1980 fuel consumption has gone down by 50 percent while vehicle miles traveled have doubled," said Mares, who said "that's a great thing."

Mares said the technology would allow for incentives for fuel efficient cars to be factored into the VMT system, a meter could show how much a driver is spending on the road, and the system could be adjusted based on a driver's income.

"That's impossible for the gas tax," Mares said, about the potential for income adjustment.