TCS Daily

Will 'Dumb' Tax Kill Smart Highways?

By Duane D. Freese - December 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Those who dream of a day in which communications devices on cars and along roads fuse to create a less clogged and safer highway system need to watch what's happening in California.

The new director of California's Department of Motor Vehicles - Joan Barucki - is being ground down by anti-tax groups, environmental advocates and privacy buffs for suggesting an alternative way to pay for roads than the gasoline tax. Her idea is to replace that portion of the state's 18-cent gasoline tax dedicated to transportation projects with a tax on miles traveled. The reason: Californians have been shifting to high-mileage vehicles, such as hybrid gas-electric vehicles. Their doing so is taking a toll on state highway funds. While miles traveled on California roads will have climbed 16 percent by 2005 from 1998 levels, gasoline tax revenues will have declined by 8 percent, according to a legislative analysis. So, Barucki figures that taxing vehicles for miles traveled could make up the difference.

At one level, there's nothing new about that. Toll roads are as old Aristotle. The difference under Barucki's plan would be that the roads wouldn't require toll booths or gates. Nor would they require inspectors to check odometers.

Instead, cars would be equipped with radio devices on their odometers. These would communicate with either the global positioning satellite system (GPS) or dedicated short-range communications devices (DSRCs) along roads that would tote up the in-state miles a vehicle travels. Drivers, as they do with gasoline taxes now, would pay at the pump -- only for miles traveled, not gallons used.

If that sounds far-fetched, well, Oregon already has planned an experiment with such a system beginning next year. Motorists who use smart cards for tolls and to buy gas are making use of SRCDs now, while GPS is used for navigation and security in General Motors' vehicles and by cellular companies to pinpoint users for emergency 911 calls.

And states next year are expected to spend $1.8 billion -- and $2.5 billion by 2009 -- on next generation intelligent transportation systems, according to a report by INPUT, the leading provider of government market information.

Those systems, INPUT noted, would provide motorists real-time traffic and weather updates as well as numerous roadside-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-vehicle safety features; they would provide highway authorities comprehensive automobile tracking and universal electronic toll collection, including tolls to travel on so-called "hot lanes" that would vary depending upon traffic conditions. Such things would help improve roads and reduce both accidents and congestion, saying money, time and lives at the same time.

Traffic experts view such systems as a means of getting around the trap of having to build ever more and wider roads and hiring ever more traffic patrol officers to police them. As Michael Park, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation engineer noted, "We (transportation officials) realize that we cannot continue to build to meet traffic needs, so we need to concentrate on safety, security and mobility."

California's moving ahead with its mileage toll plan could give the technology to do that a big boost and encourage imitation by other states. But not if politicians -- who must approve the funding -- become frightened by an adverse public reaction.

And so far, Barucki's proposal has been called everything from "the craziest idea I've ever heard of," to "regressive" to "too Orwellian" to "a truly dumb idea."

Some of the comments may merely reflect Californians' anti-tax feelings, which are understandable. After all, few states devote more than half of their gasoline taxes to non-highway uses as California does. Californians deserve real assurance that the mileage tax wouldn't be in addition to the gasoline taxes they pay, but in place of them.

Other arguments and attitudes, though, may prove more difficult to overcome.

Fossil fuel critics, for example, believe low-mileage vehicles such as SUVs and small trucks should pay substantially more taxes than hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles, no matter the level of wear-and-tear either does to the highway. Gasoline taxes are an easy way to penalize low mileage vehicles and reward hybrid buyers, who pay about $3,700 more upfront for a hybrid than an equivalent-sized gasoline powered vehicle. A mileage tax does not.

Advocates for poorer drivers, meanwhile, feel the mileage tax may prove more regressive than the gasoline tax because it can't be avoided by buying a high-mileage vehicle.

Intelligent highway systems, while they may reduce congestion and thus pollution from people waiting in traffic, would not distinguish between high-mileage and low-mileage vehicles. And that is sure to draw complaints that intelligent transportation systems are "unfair," especially by hybrid owners who bought, they claim, as a way to reduce pollution.

Even worse for intelligent transportation are the criticisms of privacy advocates about Barucki's mileage tax. If those folks don't like the mileage tax, they are going to loathe intelligent highway systems. Interactive smart highways and smart cars will undoubtedly have the capacity of tracing a vehicle wherever it goes -- complete with videos at intersections -- that police or the lawyers of former spouses might employ against them.

One might argue that driving is not a right, it is a privilege. There's a reason we have license plates and drivers' licenses and automobile registration. That cameras at intersections and on intersections can save time and lives, so if you want -- take a walk, ride a bike, get a horse and gallop into the sunset; or stay at home, where the courts have ruled people have an expectation of privacy. But that isn't likely to sit well with those who fear government, or an ex-spouse, is out to get them.

So on these questions, advocates for intelligent highways will need to have alternative plans or arguments at the ready for aggrieved hybrid buyers and privacy advocates and those for the poor. Otherwise intelligent transportation systems will find themselves mired in the same muck as Barucki's tax proposal -- in which case they'll never get off the ground.


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