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Baltimore to test-drive gasoline-tax alternative

The Baltimore Sun

An Iowa-based research center is looking for 450 Baltimore-area motorists willing to have their every driving move tracked by satellite to test a system that could theoretically replace the federal gasoline tax with road use fees.

The federally funded study will use a global positioning system satellite to track not only the mileage driven over eight months, but also whether each road traveled is funded by the state, federal or local governments.

Participants will receive a simulated bill each month for the road use fee owed to each level of government. Volunteers who take part in the study will get $895 for their services. It's all part of a $16.5 million study in six states to test the technology as well as motorists' reactions to the concept of road use tracking and fees - an idea that has received the outspoken support of U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters and other critics of the federal motor fuel tax.

Opponents of what is known as the gas tax say it's a dwindling source of revenue that is only crudely related to how much someone drives and where. Supporters of the road use fee argue that it would allocate money more precisely than the tax. But critics doubt that citizens would ever accept a system that gives the government specific information about their traveling habits.

Jon Kuhl, principal investigator with the Iowa Public Policy Center, said the information collected by the system would not include the specific locations to which the vehicle has traveled. Rather, he said, it would place a periodic automated call to a data center reporting how many miles have been driven on different categories of roads.

"There's no way this system could be used to track vehicles in any way," he said.

But Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the notion of creating such a system raises many red flags.

Coney said that even if the information transmitted to the billing center is stripped of specifics, at some point the underlying digital information is being collected.

"No matter how it's sold, it is a surveillance system. It is a locational tracking system," she said.

The test is being driven by a debate in transportation circles about how America's roads will be funded in the 21st century.

For about 70 years, the principal source of federal transportation revenue has been an excise tax on motor fuel. That federal tax on gasoline now stands at 18.4 cents per gallon. The states also rely heavily on fuel taxes, with Maryland taxing gasoline an additional 23.5 cents a gallon.

Critics of the gas tax say it will further diminish as a revenue source as technology improves mileage. They also note that it does not precisely reflect which roads a motorist uses. For instance, a Pennsylvania resident could regularly purchase gasoline in that state while doing most of his or her driving to a job in Baltimore.

Chief among those critics has been Peters, who opposes raising gas taxes to fill a looming shortfall in the federal transportation trust fund. She issued a report this year calling for a transition to fees based on road usage.

Under such a system, each user of the nation's roads could expect to receive a bill each month reflecting how many miles were driven - as well as when and where. The report argues that with the gas tax embedded in the cost of fuel, motorists tend to see the use of the road system as "free" - encouraging them to drive at times of peak demand and promoting congestion.

"One of the things politicians like about the gas tax is that it's invisible," Kuhl said. He said he envisions a system under which road charges are "taken out of the hands of Congress" and entrusted to a commission. The typical American now pays about $250 a year in federal and state gas taxes, he said.

Transportation advocates are hardly unanimous in accepting the idea of road use fees. The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission issued a report last year calling for a gradual increase in fuel taxes of 5 to 8 cents a year over five years - with future increases indexed to inflation.

"While there is a growing consensus that alternatives to the fuel tax may be necessary in about 20 years, the fuel tax should remain an important component of surface transportation finance until viable alternatives are found," the commission said.

Peters, a member of the panel, dissented.

The Iowa study will test one of the systems that has been suggested as an eventual replacement for paying at the pump.

Kevin Leibel, a spokesman for the center, said Baltimore is one of six sites around the country where the system will be tested. Starting today, the center will run ads seeking volunteers from Baltimore and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Kent counties to take part in the program.

Participants will agree to have what Leibel called "a noninvasive little computer device" mounted under their car seats.

The devices will use GPS to track when, how far and on which roads the drivers use their vehicles in their daily lives. Leibel said participants will be paid $895 - $300 up-front, $40 a month for eight months and $275 at the end of the project.

The survey will test not only the technology but also behavioral reactions and attitudes about the concept. Leibel said researchers hope to put together a broad cross section of the population, including people of varying education and individuals who have privacy concerns.

Kuhl, the project leader, said the electronic systems are perhaps the least uncertain part of the experiment. Similar GPS-based systems are already up and running in Europe.

Leibel compared the system to other, more familiar technologies that can pinpoint a vehicle's location at a given time - such as EZ-Pass, individually owned GPS units and cell phones.

The distinction is that the use of those technologies - like participation in the study - is voluntary and can be avoided on any given day. Any widely adopted road use fee scheme would likely involve mandatory participation in order to drive on public roads.

Kuhl acknowledged that such a system would raise privacy concerns and force "hard choices" about how to replace fuel taxes in the future.

"There's concern that the gas tax has been around for 70 years and it's pretty invisible and pretty ingrained," he said.

While Kuhl insisted that any eventual system could include safeguards to ensure that no precise locational information would be reported to authorities, the privacy center's Coney was less sanguine.

"The GPS signal will be associated with a vehicle or the owner of a vehicle," she said.

Coney said she would be concerned that a system adopted to collect revenue would be subject to "mission creep" - future pressure to expand its use by government agencies with other agendas.

While not flatly opposing the concept, Coney said any system that can track locations would have to be designed with strict safeguards - including criminal sanctions - to ensure that future events won't drive how the system is used.

"The inevitable emergency is going to happen," she said, adding that law enforcement and national security officials will want the same type of access to information they have received from phone companies.

One of the dangers, Coney said, is that such a system would let authorities track who is associating with whom and draw their own, potentially erroneous conclusions. She gave the example of a person joining in a highway cleanup with a church group including members who oppose the death penalty - a reference to the recent revelation that the Maryland State Police had put death penalty opponents under surveillance and added some of their names to a terrorist watch list.

Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, admitted that there are still concerns about such a system that have not been resolved.

"How do you get around the fact that the government would be riding around in your car? I don't know," he said.

Information about participating in the study can be found at roaduserstudy.org. or by calling a toll-free number, 866-363-1975.

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