First it was the safety advocates, innocuously placing a recorder in your car to pick up a little information on your driving actions in an accident — just to improve the safety equipment in cars. Then it was the auto insurance industry, innocently offering to cut your rates in exchange for a little information about your driving habits. Next up? More than a dozen states are looking to track your driving as a way of calculating out how much to tax you for the miles you’ve driven.
Oregon will be the first, starting July 1. Under a voluntary plan, Oregon motorists can opt to pay 1.5 cents per mile driven, based on miles recorded by an on-board GPS monitor. They still pay gas taxes imposed at the pump, but each month the state will “settle up” with the driver based on actual miles recorded vs. gas tax paid at the pump, sending them a rebate for taxes paid in excess of their mileage charge, or a bill for taxes owed.
At first, only 5,000 drivers will be admitted into Oregon’s monitoring program, but eventually the program is expected to expand to every vehicle in the state. The per-mile rate is intended, at least at first, to be revenue-neutral. Drivers opting for GPS tracking won’t pay for miles driven outside the state, and the system won’t differentiate between public and private road use, although that level of tracking is possible in the future.
According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, some 18 states are considering similar programs. Oregon and California are part of an 11-state consortium of Western states researching or implementing per-mile taxing. Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin are also studying the idea.
The reasoning behind this new form of road taxation is simple: As cars have become more efficient, and therefore less thirsty for fuel, taxes based on fuel purchases to build and maintain roads have fallen off or remained stagnant, despite increases in miles driven, growth in traffic, and wear and tear on crumbling transportation infrastructure. A tiny portion of that reduction can also be attributed to highly fuel-efficient hybrids and fully electric cars that, at the moment, pay very little or nothing for their use of the public roadways. But as the number of battery-electric vehicles grows, their impact on the bigger picture will also grow.
Advocates say the tax-per-mile approach ultimately is the most equitable way to assess road taxes, given that everyone pays their fair share based on their usage.
“We should focus on mileage-based user fees,” says Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the non-partisan, free-market Reason Foundation. “The approach I like best is not having one charge for everything.”
Poole says implementing a fair, mileage-based road tax is easier than people might think, using existing transponders or a number of low-tech solutions. With 25 percent of all miles traveled occurring on limited-access interstates, use of existing electronic toll transponders or license-plate imaging to record miles traveled are easy solutions, he says. Miles traveled on other roads could be assessed based on simple odometer readings when vehicles are inspected (in states that require inspections), or, he suggests, by paying an “all-you-can-drive” fee imposed when registering a vehicle or renewing a registration.
Significantly higher charges could be levied for heavier vehicles that cause more highway damage, he said, along with imposing congestion charges to discourage driving in high-traffic areas or at certain times of day. Poole admits those measures would require more sophisticated tracking that might be considered too invasive. But only certain routes and vehicles would require that level of tracking.
“The Big Brother specter is going to be a big part of the problem,” Poole says. “But you don’t need a GPS to track every inch you drive.”
Regardless, privacy advocates are crying foul, especially when it comes to tracking whether your miles were driven in or out of state, or on public or private roads.
“No matter what, these schemes are ultimately going to rely on technology that tracks where you drive, how you drive and when you drive,” says John Bowman, vice president of the National Motorist Association. “That’s intrusive and smacks of Big Brother. The only way this really works is if you track everybody everywhere they go.”
It might start innocently enough, but the NMA believes it’s only a matter of time before the tax-per-mile system is tracking each driver to charge not only for private vs. public road use but also as a way to encourage road use during certain times of day to reduce congestion. NMA opposes any actions that limit free choice by drivers, and it is especially adamant about handing over responsibility for any law enforcement or public transportation service to any private company.
“It breeds corruption,” says Bowman.
Further, such monitoring, opponents say, is rife with the chance of information getting into the wrong hands — or into the hands of marketers looking to make a buck by knowing people’s driving habits. People are justifiably paranoid of public databases but are even more alarmed by the prospect of private vendors banking information about their driving patterns. And that’s long before anyone even starts worrying about hackers and data skimmers.
Oregon’s law covers those bases, with strict pre-implementation testing to ensure the security of any data collected, and regulations governing management of that information and when it must be destroyed. And specific location tracking won’t be a part of the program other than to determine miles driven and whether someone is driving in or out of state, according to the state’s website.
Finally, opponents question the high cost of installing the tracking equipment at a cost of $50-$100 in every vehicle, as well as the cost to the state for administering the program.
For observers like the NMA’s Bowman, the easier solution is already on the books: Increase existing fuel taxes, whether at the federal level (the nation’s 18.4-cent per gallon gas tax hasn’t been increased in 20 years) or at the state level.
“We still think a fuel tax is the fairest and simplest way to handle it,” Bowman says.