The Ultimate Backseat Driver

It's a classic Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, we're told that our vehicles need to be more efficient in order to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, as traditional cars are designed to burn less gasoline, and as hybrids gain in popularity, there will be a corresponding drop-off in the amount of fuel consumed.

In particular, this has been bothering the Oregon state government, which pays for about 70% of its road building needs through a 24-cent-per-gallon tax at the pump. Raising the tax rate would be one way out, but after six tax hikes between 1981 and 1991, politicians have been unable to pass another. So, since then, they've taken a back door route by floating bonds to pay for present expenses with future tax monies.

Now even that money is running out. Thus, representatives of the people of Oregon (coincidentally, the first of the 50 states to levy a gas tax in 1919) created the so-called "Road User Fee Task Force," which came up with an alternative plan. Let's say someone uses X amount of fuel to drive Y miles. If X goes down, but Y remains the same, the driver may be polluting less, but he or she is putting the same stress on streets and highways. Therefore, why not tax people on the number of miles they drive, rather than how much gas they consume? And that's exactly what Oregon is proposing to do. Though it seems fair enough, the devil, as always, is in the details.

First of all, how do you determine distance traveled? The original idea was to install a device that electronically records changes in the odometer reading. A second possibility is to install an on-board GPS system that tracks where the vehicle has been. Both are being tested, and in both cases, if a driver pulled up to the pump, the mileage driven since his last fill-up would be transmitted to an external recording device, which would then calculate road use tax owed and add it automatically to his bill.

As of now, the GPS idea has the inside track, for a couple of reasons. First, the state only wants to log miles traveled within Oregon. And second, a GPS leaves open the possibility of different rates of taxation. This is in response to critics who charge that a flat tax rate discriminates against rural drivers who might have to travel long distances, but who do so on low-usage roads, as opposed to commuters who cover fewer miles, but on densely packed highways.

"We're looking at variable pricing and congestion pricing," says James Whitty, head of the task force, "and we could even do different time-of-day rates."

Technology has solved these kinds of technical problems, or soon will. But other questions will not so easily go away. As Chris Hagerbaumer of the Oregon Environmental Council points out, if one of our goals is to promote reduced-consumption vehicles, then a mileage tax actually works against that, in that it removes the fuel efficiency incentives that are inherent in higher gasoline taxes.

And we can't help but wonder what this plan means concerning further government intrusion into our lives. Rights ceded to the state are seldom, if ever, returned to the citizens. Quite the contrary; they tend to be the first steps down a slippery slope, on which the loss of one thing inevitably leads to the loss of many others.

"This technology has the potential to be incredibly invasive," writes David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "I find it hard to believe that a GPS [system] could not easily be turned into a device that can monitor where a car goes in real time. And it's hard to believe that either within the device or in some remote database that information isn't being stored."

Americans have already granted data collectors a ton of information about where we shop, what we buy, where we travel by plane. Do we also want to hand government the ability to track where we have driven, or even where we're headed while we're still on the road? We at WWNK would rather not.

According to the Oregon Dept. of Transportation, the road user fee will be tested next spring in a pilot program in Portland, with a limited number of cars. But future plans call for the project's expansion over the next couple of decades, until all new cars come pre-equipped with the relevant GPS tech toys and transmitters, and all unequipped cars have gone to auto graveyards. At that point, drivers will truly be at the mercy of the state.

Rather than accept this, we hope the people of Oregon will resist and heed the words of people like Russell Sadler of Southern Oregon University, a self-described classical conservative: "Americans intrinsically understand that computerized data collection and aggregation are the tools of the modern police state. Although the police state was renamed the national security state after 9/11, the collection and compiling of information about individuals--and the motives of people associated with it--remain suspect. As they should."

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Posted 10-25-2005 12:44 AM by Doug Casey
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