Voters: No tanks

SALEM, Ore. - Treecia Meyer drummed her fingers on her steering wheel as she waited for the attendant to finish filling her sport utility vehicle with $1.78-a-gallon gasoline - 55 cents higher than a year ago.

Would she be willing to pay 5 cents a gallon more if the money went to fix roads?

"No way," she said. "I'm driving to the beach today, and I can barely afford the cost as it is."

But an extra nickel a gallon is precisely what voters are being asked to approve in a measure on Oregon's May 16 ballot.

Talk about bad timing: People across the country are smarting from the pain of sharply higher gas prices. The cost of premium has climbed near $2 a gallon in Oregon, which has the fifth-highest gas prices in the nation.

A coalition of local governments, trucking companies and businesses has argued that Oregon's gas tax must be raised from the current 24 cents a gallon to 29 cents to fix deteriorating roads and expand streets and highways in the state's increasingly congested urban areas.

"Road improvements can only be funded if those of us who use the roads step forward to pay a little bit more," said Pat McCormick, the coalition's spokesman.

Soaring gas prices, however, have sent the pro-tax people into a tactical retreat. Late last month, they pulled TV and radio commercials and decided to use direct-mail instead, figuring that might be more effective because it could target areas needing road improvements.

"We've had to confront the reality that OPEC and the oil companies have created record gas prices," McCormick said. "That certainly hasn't helped us."

Opponents - and many neutral observers - believe the measure is doomed.

"Explain to me how they can win if they are not on TV. You just don't go off the tube like that. It looks like the proponents are viewing it as a long shot as well," said pollster Tim Hibbitts.

In a poll conducted by Hibbitts last summer, 65 percent opposed the tax increase and 32 percent supported it. Hibbitts has not conducted another poll since then but said it is clear the rise in gasoline prices will make Measure 82 even more difficult to pass.

On Thursday, the government reported that gasoline prices should peak this month and decline to an average of $1.46 a gallon for the summer.

Efforts to raise Oregon's gas tax have also been hurt by opponents' charges that truckers will get an unfair advantage.

Aside from increasing the gas tax, the plan would raise vehicle registration fees and repeal the weight-mile tax truckers now pay and replace it with a new diesel tax. Trucking interests sought the change, saying that the current weight-mile tax system is costly and cumbersome.

Roger Graybeal, president of the American Automobile Association's Oregon-Idaho chapter, said the auto club has no choice but to urge Oregonians to reject the measure.

"We believe additional funding is needed for Oregon highways," Graybeal said. "But Measure 82 places a heavy burden on motorists and allows a windfall to heavy trucks."

The tax increase isn't going to happen if motorists like real estate agent Dovie Pulver have anything to say about it.

"We're already paying enough gas taxes," Pulver said. "They're not doing enough with the gas tax money they have."

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