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A black box in your car? Some see a source of tax revenue

A black box in your car? Some see a source of tax revenue thumbnail

As America’s road planners struggle to find the cash to mend a crumbling highway system, many are beginning to see a solution in a little black box that fits neatly by the dashboard of your car.

The devices, which track every mile a motorist drives and transmit that information to bureaucrats, are at the center of a controversial attempt in Washington and state planning offices to overhaul the outdated system for funding America’s major roads.

The usually dull arena of highway planning has suddenly spawned intense debate and colorful alliances. Libertarians have joined environmental groups in lobbying to allow government to use the little boxes to keep track of the miles you drive, and possibly where you drive them — then use the information to draw up a tax bill.

The tea party is aghast. The American Civil Liberties Union is deeply concerned, too, raising a variety of privacy issues.

And while Congress can’t agree on whether to proceed, several states are not waiting. They are exploring how, over the next decade, they can move to a system in which drivers pay per mile of road they roll over. Thousands of motorists have already taken the black boxes, some of which have GPS monitoring, for a test drive.

“This really is a must for our nation. It is not a matter of something we might choose to do,” said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which is planning for the state to start tracking miles driven by every California motorist by 2025. “There is going to be a change in how we pay these taxes. The technology is there to do it.”

The push comes as the country’s Highway Trust Fund, financed with taxes Americans pay at the gas pump, is broke. Americans don’t buy as much gas as they used to. Cars get many more miles to the gallon. The federal tax itself, 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t gone up in 20 years. Politicians are loath to raise the tax even one penny when gas prices are high.

“The gas tax is just not sustainable,” said Lee Munnich, a transportation policy expert at the University of Minnesota. His state recently put tracking devices on 500 cars to test out a pay-by-mile system. “This works out as the most logical alternative over the long term,” he said.

Wonks call it a mileage-based user fee. It is no surprise that the idea appeals to urban liberals, as the taxes could be rigged to change driving patterns in ways that could help reduce congestion and greenhouse gases, for example. California planners are looking to the system as they devise strategies to meet the goals laid out in the state’s ambitious global warming laws. But Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has said he, too, sees it as the most viable long-term alternative. The free marketeers at the Reason Foundation are also fond of having drivers pay per mile.

“This is not just a tax going into a black hole,” said Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at Reason. “People are paying more directly into what they are getting.”

The movement is also bolstered by two former U.S. Transportation secretaries, who in a 2011 report urged Congress to move in the pay-per-mile direction.

The U.S. Senate approved a $90-million pilot project last year that would have involved about 10,000 cars. But the House leadership killed the proposal, acting on concerns of rural lawmakers representing constituents whose daily lives often involve logging lots of miles to get to work or into town.

Several states and cities are nonetheless moving ahead on their own. The most eager is Oregon, which is enlisting 5,000 drivers in the country’s biggest experiment. Those drivers will soon pay the mileage fees instead of gas taxes to the state. Nevada has already completed a pilot. New York City is looking into one. Illinois is trying it on a limited basis with trucks. And the I-95 Coalition, which includes 17 state transportation departments along the Eastern Seaboard (including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida), is studying how they could go about implementing the change.

The concept is not a universal hit.

In Nevada, where about 50 volunteers’ cars were equipped with the devices not long ago, drivers were uneasy about the government being able to monitor their every move.

“Concerns about Big Brother and those sorts of things were a major problem,” said Alauddin Khan, who directs strategic and performance management at the Nevada Department of Transportation. “It was not something people wanted.”

As the trial got underway, the ACLU of Nevada warned on its website: “It would be fairly easy to turn these devices into full-fledged tracking devices…. There is no need to build an enormous, unwieldy technological infrastructure that will inevitably be expanded to keep records of individuals’ everyday comings and goings.”

Nevada is among several states now scrambling to find affordable technology that would allow the state to keep track of how many miles a car is being driven, but not exactly where and at what time. If you can do that, Khan said, the public gets more comfortable.

The hunt for that technology has led some state agencies to a small California startup called True Mileage. The firm was not originally in the business of helping states tax drivers. It was seeking to break into an emerging market in auto insurance, in which drivers would pay based on their mileage. But the devices it is testing appeal to highway planners because they don’t use GPS and deliver a limited amount of information, uploaded periodically by modem.

“People will be more willing to do this if you do not track their speed and you do not track their location,” said Ryan Morrison, chief executive of True Mileage. “There have been some big mistakes in some of these state pilot programs. There are a lot less expensive and less intrusive ways to do this.”

In Oregon, planners are experimenting with giving drivers different choices. They can choose a device with or without GPS. Or they can choose not to have a device at all, opting instead to pay a flat fee based on the average number of miles driven by all state residents.

Other places are hoping to sell the concept to a wary public by having the devices do more, not less. In New York City, transportation officials are seeking to develop a taxing device that would also be equipped to pay parking meter fees, provide “pay-as-you-drive” insurance, and create a pool of real-time speed data from other drivers that motorists could use to avoid traffic.

“Motorists would be attracted to participate … because of the value of the benefits it offers to them,” says a city planning document.

Some transportation planners, though, wonder if all the talk about paying by the mile is just a giant distraction. At the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area, officials say Congress could very simply deal with the bankrupt Highway Trust Fund by raising gas taxes. An extra one-time or annual levy could be imposed on drivers of hybrids and others whose vehicles don’t use much gas, so they pay their fair share.

“There is no need for radical surgery when all you need to do is take an aspirin,” said Randy Rentschler, the commission’s director of legislation and public affairs. “If we do this, hundreds of millions of drivers will be concerned about their privacy and a host of other things.”

LA Times

15 Comments on "A black box in your car? Some see a source of tax revenue"

  1. DC on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 8:22 pm 

    RoFL! More proof that ‘we’. and by we, I mean oil and auto corporations will do literally anything to keep our gas-powered trash cans rolling along to Wall-mart.

    Except of course, raise taxes on gas(if your an amerikan of course). All the civilized nations tax gas heavily. Not that is really an answer either, but at least no one goes to such extreme ways of avoiding raising gas taxes like the US and its captive ‘law-makers’ do.

    This article can be distilled down to one simple thing:

    Amerikan corporations will not permit the costs of gas-powered car-dependency to be borne by either the corporations themselves-or end users. Offloading of costs of amerikas cars-only culture is what the third world and the environment are for. At ALL costs, amerikas fat suburban slobs must be shielded from paying anything remotely like the costs of the damage there cars do. And forget about building bike or fixed surface rail to move people around. Its cars all the way down baby! Throw a tracking chip in em and were off to wall-mart!…..where they also put tracking chips in everything.

    But! Putting a tracking chip in there GM trash can-and building immensely complicated, expensive and fragile (wireless) networks to track their every move. Well that idea is on the table….

  2. rollin on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 8:47 pm 

    This is a total croc. So what if cars are getting more efficient, they still use fuel. Because they are lighter they do less road damage also.
    How can a fuel tax not work? If you buy transportation fuel, you use the road and pay the tax. Just increase it and stop using the funds for other projects.
    This whole thing about a black box that transmits data is just another expensive and unnecessary layer added to government that will have huge numbers of errors involved.
    The whole thing sounds like a spy campaign against the public under the guise of a tax system.
    And of course all that info will be sold to private concerns to make more money.

  3. rollin on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 8:56 pm 

    Of course the agencies could just as well look at our mileage and record it once or twice a year. But that would not put hundreds of millions into the pockets of their buddies and artificially boost the economy to make them look better.

  4. Norm on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 8:59 pm 

    Looks like liberals get an F on this one. Of course the gas tax is good enough. And use odometer readings for the electric cars. Sickly big brother tactics proposed, those who propose it want to destroy society even faster than it collapses naturally.

  5. Norm on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 9:04 pm 

    The liberals already have a finger up your tail pipe, its emission inspection. If your car is ck, keep driving. If you belch more smoke than a volcano, you get an exception. But they already have an odometer reading. Without any liberal black box. Far right is same as far left, they like lots of CIA, lots of black glass buildings with useless workers inside, watching your every move.

  6. action on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 10:29 pm 

    That will be the day I stop driving, so either way, they will fail with me to obtain any additional revenue for junky old highways.

  7. Kenz300 on Mon, 28th Oct 2013 12:12 am 

    Tax every vehicle at registration……. and raise the gas tax a few cents. Also stop building new roads to nowhere………

  8. Dave Thompson on Mon, 28th Oct 2013 12:19 am 

    None of this will soon matter. The affordable fuel to run, build and maintain infrastructure is quickly slipping away. Running cars and trucks in an affordable way relying on fossil fuel will become a thing of the past. All it will take is $150-200 plus crude, game over.

  9. rollin on Mon, 28th Oct 2013 1:42 am 

    How about all the cars and trucks that come from out of state? If the gas tax is gone, why do they get a free ride?

  10. BillT on Mon, 28th Oct 2013 1:50 am 

    Do you feel the Police State closing in? If you live in the US, it is obvious to those who still have two working brain cells. To the rest of the West, it is in your country also. Look around for the signs. Do they use cameras to ‘catch traffic violators’ or does your car have a GPS system? Or maybe an ‘instant pass’ that allows it to go through toll booths without stopping? And these are the ones we know about.

    How about your cell phone, lap top, I-pad, etc? ALL have built in trackers. Proof? When you looked up the cost of something or where you could buy it, did ads for that item start popping up in your other sites? Tracking is used for more than advertising.

    Your credit purchases track your location and tell anyone who wants the information, what you bought and how much you paid. Your bank pays your car payment, phone bill, internet bill insurance bills, mortgage/rent, etc, all ‘automatically’ to make it convenient (for them to track and control your life if they decide to or your government decides to).

    Tech is good, but in my 69 years, the good has been outweighed by the bad at least 100 to 1. (100 = bad)

  11. rollin on Mon, 28th Oct 2013 11:08 am 

    Right on, BillT. You hit the nail on the head. The surveillance/police state is here and growing. So much for electronics, originally used to communicate long distance and for transportation safety, it has been perverted into a worldwide peeping tom system.

  12. steveo on Mon, 28th Oct 2013 5:54 pm 

    BillT wrote “Do you feel the Police State closing in?”

    They don’t even have to rely on our devices spying us. There are millions of people out there who are posting their every move to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with pictures.

  13. Ghung on Mon, 28th Oct 2013 9:52 pm 

    Raise the fuel tax first. Record the mileage at emissions/inspection time second and adjust annual tax accordingly. Problem solved. Of course, if they have a different agenda, they’ll foist the black box on everyone, shortly before they RFID all citizens and require retina scans to purchase anything.

    Where’s Blank Reg when you need him?

  14. James on Tue, 29th Oct 2013 12:58 am 

    So, if the funds for road building are drying up, then why are they still building and remodeling roads and highways? They need to just maintain what they already have until the traffic on those roads start to dwindle. If they install those black boxes, I am sure someone will find a way to disconnect them. If this happens, I am sure there will be a drastic drop in miles driven and then the government will experience an even more drop in their funding for roads. It is all over and they better get used to it.

  15. Kenz300 on Tue, 29th Oct 2013 4:32 am 

    Buy a bicycle……. they are great transportation and good for your health……

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