Funding Roads by Miles Traveled—There’s an App for That
Yesterday’s post explored odometer reporting as an imperfect but straightforward way to replace fuel taxes with a funding mechanism that tied road usage more closely to the amount a driver pays. However, the most accurate way to know how many in-state miles someone drives is to track their vehicles. Several states have initiated road-usage-charge programs that offer drivers the option of using GPS-equipped vehicle plug-in devices, or even an app, to record their mileage.
Recording mileage via GPS tracking has some advantages over the odometer-reading method I described in yesterday’s post. For one thing, the GPS method would allow out-of-state miles to be excluded. Additionally, as some roads—such as urban freeways and interstates—are more expensive to build and maintain than typical roads, drivers could pay different rates for using different roads.
However, this type of mileage recording raises privacy concerns. How do these programs work in states that have tried it?
The longest-running and best-established program to date is in Oregon. Drivers who voluntarily participate in the OReGO program can pay a per-mile fee for driving and have any fuel taxes reimbursed. Drivers have several options of how to track those miles, such as paying for a block of miles in advance, odometer readings, or using GPS technology to record miles driven. If drivers choose the latter option, a third-party provider places a GPS-equipped plug-in device in their car, and the device uses vehicle data to determine in-state miles driven and fuel consumption. In order to protect drivers’ privacy, Oregon state law mandates that only the total weekly miles driven may be reported to the Department of Transportation. Personal data not delivered to the Department of Transportation is encrypted and destroyed on a set schedule, in accordance with Department of Transportation policy and OReGO program requirements laid down legislatively. This information cannot be sold or traded without the driver’s express consent.
Utah’s Road Usage Charge program operates similarly, although it is only for electric vehicle drivers. The program’s voluntary participants can pre-select their privacy settings, and a transponder run by a third-party service provider is installed in the vehicle. The third-party system sends monthly total miles driven to the Department of Transportation without disclosing additional data unless tied to a criminal investigation.
Several other states are exploring variants of these programs. Delaware and other east coast states are exploring mileage-based user fees in a series of pilots. California also conducted a road-usage charge pilot program, but legislators have not decided whether to continue the program.
It is also important to note what GPS technology does and does not do. GPS satellites do not necessarily track cars (or phones, etc.) that have receivers. It is the GPS receiver itself, whether in a cell phone or transponder, that tracks its own position in relation to a satellite. But unless the receiver is equipped with reporting capability, the device’s location is not shared with the satellite.
Protecting drivers’ privacy is a serious concern, and reporting of personal or location-specific data should only be allowed when explicitly agreed to by drivers. Further, while it offers the potential for the most accurate measuring of a driver’s miles logged, a GPS-based option must continue to be one of several options for reporting miles. In the next post, I’ll talk about a third method of pairing funding for road maintenance with miles driven.