VMT Tax Pilot Gets Underway

Jim Mayer reports in the Monday O that ODOT is ready to roll out its pilot test of a VMT tax system. 280 test subjects will drive around with a GPS device in their car for 10 months.

Discussion of this idea on other blogs has tended to degenerate into a argument around privacy concerns, but according to ODOT the device will only track whether you’re in the state and whether you’re in an urban area (a hook for some kind of congestion pricing in the future).

I can’t help but think that pretty soon we’re all going to be walking around with GPS-enabled cell phones letting marketers bombard us with ads based on our location, but somehow the idea of this device freaks people out.

On a similar note, I saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal in which IBM was touting its ability to provide similar technology to enable pay-as-you-drive auto insurance.

7 responses to “VMT Tax Pilot Gets Underway”

  1. “Discussion of this idea on other blogs has tended to degenerate into a argument around privacy concerns, but according to ODOT the device”

    That’s because regardless of what they say (the Government is really NOT that reliable to be trusted) GPS can be used to track you. The police/Government/Military or someone wanting to find someone can hit the device and find x person. Very very very bad.

    …but on another point, these things should work out well. It definately will help balance out the costs of roadways vs. what is actually paid in. Something really does need to be done about this matter. The technology should work perfect, will cause people to act more in accordance with the costs associated with driving and also at the same time start covering more of the costs of roads.

    Now if this thing will cause drivers to completely cover the cost of road then maybe we can do a pay for use across the board again.

    Then of course, as with most tax schemes, they’ll probably find a way to screw it up.

  2. I am one of those who has strongly stated my privacy objections to such a tolling method.

    But let’s say for argument’s sake that ODOT is correct in stating that these devices will not record your location, but only whether you were in-state or out-of-state at a certain time and how many miles you drove.

    How, then, will the public be able to dispute the accuracy of the tolling system for legitimate purposes? What if I really was out of state on a certain day? How do I prove it? Will a receipt do? What if I don’t have a receipt? What if I drove hundreds of miles entirely on private roads or a track? Do I get a mileage deduction?

    How, then, will the system prevent fraud? Can anyone say “I was in Vancouver all week and this thing thought I was in-state… it must be miscalibrated, I want my tax money back.”

    The only way for the state to settle a dispute (other than to simply say “you’re out of luck, we collect based only on what the machine says and that’s that”), is for the device to maintain logs of location and time recordings which can be revealed in the event of a dispute.

    Now, perhaps these logs can be protected in such a way that the consumer must authorize their disclosure — they don’t have to automatically be transmitted to the government. But, once the logs are kept, how long will it be before someone in the name of some cause wants to legislate that police may review them, that they automatically get turned over every time you fill up, etc?

    We already know that the NSA maintains logs of many (perhaps most) of the phone call records in this country. With access to GPS logs, they could determine who was visiting who, where they were congregating, etc. Very tempting information. How long would it be, once every car had mandatory GPS, before log sharing was also mandated?

    There are better ways to tax vehicle usage than by mandatory GPS… I’ll post some ideas in my next comment.

    – Bob R.

  3. I think it is a bit early for this technology. But the cell phone companies are already marketing the ability of parents to track their kids based on their cell phone location. Those kids will probably not have the same expectation of privacy when they grow up. They will probably have no more problem with their vehicle being tracked than we do with having a license plate prominently posted to identify our car or to have identification to travel.

  4. OK, some ideas on a “better way”…

    One problem (besides privacy) that I have with the plan being tested is that it appears to treat all vehicles equally (tax by mile) but all vehicles are not equal: Heavier vehicles cause more damage to the roads than lighter vehicles.

    If a GPS/mileage-based system is implemented (and I’m opposed for privacy reasons, but…), the fee structure should include the original gross weight of the vehicle, essentially making it a weight-mile tax.

    But the formula should include the proportion of gas tax revenues that actually go to maintenance/repair as opposed to new capacity. (All users should equally pay for new capacity, but maintenance costs should be shouldered more by those who cause more damage.)

    Having a weight component to the tax would create a partial incentive for people to buy lighter (and usually more fuel efficient) cars.

    But any such incentive still would not be as strong as the current gas tax – the current gas tax rewards those who consume less and cause less damage automatically.

    If we are going to mandate devices be placed into every car, how about something that does not involve GPS or mileage at all?

    How about instead a transponder that solely identifies the vehicle (owner ID, vehicle type, class, etc.) Further, require that studded tires also contain a transponder that indicates that such tires are mounted on the wheel.

    At the pump, the vehicle would transmit this information, and the pump would charge a tax in appropriate proportion to calculated road maintenance costs for the vehicle, plus a fixed rate for new infrastructure.

    The privacy intrusion would be far more minimal (it would only reveal when and where you stopped for gas) and your gas receipt would provide the appropriate audit trail information.

    But, would this really buy us a system that was all that different from the current gas tax? It would be a tad more accurate in assessing maintenance taxation, but would it be worth the effort?

    I think the current gas tax is not really broken… some worry about revenues declining based on people buying more fuel efficient vehicles and hybrids… but isn’t that what we want people to be doing? If that is a concern, why toy with replacing the tax with a complicated, intrusive GPS scheme and instead why not index the current tax to a combination of inflation, road maintenance costs and VMT in a revenue-neutral way?

    If the initial change is revenue-neutral, it should meet with minimal objection, and maintenance costs would always be appropriately covered. The tax would only need to be increased if the population demanded an increase in funds for new projects.

    I say, stick with the gas tax, with some modifications. The tax is simple, easy to understand, and ultimately private.

    – Bob R.

  5. And another somewhat related idea:

    One of the advantages of GPS-based taxing, if there is no privacy, is that we will have a database of road usage which would let us objectively answer the questions: 1. Where is travel demand? 2. Where should new improvements go? 3. How much money should be allocated to various improvements?

    But, we do not need to invade the privacy of everyone to answer these questions.

    Instead, the state could randomly select a statistically significant portion of drivers from around the state (and neighboring communities in bordering states) and pay them to carry GPS logging devices. These volunteers would go about their normal daily activities, and once a month or so the GPS receivers could upload aggregate data about travel patterns. Similar, in a way, to how the Nielsen TV ratings system works.

    The travel patterns of this scientific sample could be analysed to determine everything from commuting patterns to shopping habits. We could authoritatively answer questions like “Where does Sellwood Bridge traffic come from”, “Where does South Waterfront traffic really go?”, “Where do people from Vancouver go when they drive here over the I-5 bridge?”, and use the answers to determine where best to invest in new infrastructure.

    – Bob R.

  6. All users should equally pay for new capacity…

    Why? That’s the exact opposite of congestion pricing or system development charges. Shouldn’t growth pay for itself?

    I think the current gas tax is not really broken… some worry about revenues declining based on people buying more fuel efficient vehicles and hybrids…

    The gas tax is broken because it’s not indexed to inflation.

  7. “The gas tax is broken because it’s not indexed to inflation.”

    I did suggest indexing in my comments… I mean to say that the gas tax, as a concept for raising transportation revenues, is not broken, and can be adjusted to be more in tune with current and future needs.

    “Why? That’s the exact opposite of congestion pricing or system development charges. Shouldn’t growth pay for itself?”

    It actually is not the opposite if spending decisions are made appropriately. It is spending decisions that determine whether or not the gas tax is appropriately linked to growth… this is why I suggest the idea of a GPS survey of travel behavior.

    The gas tax (with adjustments) would raise revenue based both on total utilization of the road network and on maintenance demands placed on the network. The GPS survey would allow us to make spending decisions that more accurately reflect system demands.

    – Bob R.

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