Ramblings & ephemera

Should states track cars with GPS?

From Glen Johnson’s “Massachusetts may consider a mileage charge” (AP: 17 February 2009):

A tentative plan to overhaul Massachusetts’ transportation system by using GPS chips to charge motorists a quarter-cent for every mile behind the wheel has angered some drivers.

But a “Vehicle Miles Traveled” program like the one the governor may unveil this week has already been tested — with positive results — in Oregon.

Governors in Idaho and Rhode Island, as well as the federal government, also are talking about such programs. And in North Carolina, a panel suggested in December the state start charging motorists a quarter-cent for every mile as a substitute for the gas tax.

“The Big Brother issue was identified during the first meeting of the task force that developed our program,” said Jim Whitty, who oversees innovation projects for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “Everything we did from that point forward, even though we used electronics, was to eliminate those concerns.”

A draft overhaul transport plan prepared for Gov. Deval Patrick says implementing a Vehicle Miles Traveled system to replace the gas tax makes sense. “A user-based system, collected electronically, is a fair way to pay for our transportation needs in the future,” it says.

The idea behind the program is simple: As cars become more fuel efficient or powered by electricity, gas tax revenues decline. Yet the cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges is increasing. A state could cover that gap by charging drivers precisely for the mileage their vehicles put on public roads.

In Oregon, the state paid volunteers who let the transportation department install GPS receivers in 300 vehicles. The device did not transmit a signal — which would allow real-time tracking of a driver’s movements — but instead passively received satellite pings telling the receiver where it was in terms of latitude and longitude coordinates.

The state used those coordinates to determine when the vehicle was driving both within Oregon and outside the state. And it measured the respective distances through a connection with the vehicle’s odometer.

When a driver pulled into a predetermined service station, the pump linked electronically with the receiver, downloaded the number of miles driven in Oregon and then charged the driver a fee based on the distance. The gas tax they would have paid was reduced by the amount of the user fee. Drivers continued to be charged gas tax for miles driven outside Oregon.

Under such systems, one of which is already used in London, drivers are charged more for entering a crowded area during rush hour than off-peak periods.

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