Mainers invited to become track-your-car guinea pigs
The Portland Press Herald ^ | 15 July 2009 | Beth Quimby
Posted on Thursday, July 16, 2009 10:16:47 AM by BGHater
It’s all in the name of research on finding a better way to tax motorists, and the pay is $895.
Wanted: 250 Maine drivers willing to let a stranger put a black box under their dashboard.
The reward: $895 and the opportunity to speak their minds about the highway tax experiment to a researcher.
University of Iowa researchers are seeking 250 motorists in Cumberland, York and Sagadahoc counties willing to have a computer tracking system installed in their cars for 10 months. The system could someday be used to tax drivers according to the number of miles they drive, rather than the amount of gasoline they consume.
Portland is one of six cities picked for the research, which is designed to determine whether a mileage tax would work better than the gas tax to support the country’s highway system.
Advertising for volunteers in Maine will start at the end of the month, said John Kuhl, an electrical and computer engineering professor in charge of the research. The aim of the study is not just to see whether the technology works, but also to find out whether drivers would accept it.
The $16.5 million study for the U.S. Department of Transportation was authorized in 2005 by Congress, which like the Maine Legislature and other state lawmaking bodies, has been grappling with how to fund the nation’s aging highway system.
“All of the federal commissions that have looked at this have come to the conclusion that sometime in the next decade we need an alternative to the gas tax for highway construction funding,” said Kuhl.
The problem is that the gas tax, collected at the federal, state and sometimes county and municipal levels, is not enough to cover the costs of maintaining the highway system.
As cars have become more energy-efficient, the money raised by fuel taxes has gone down. Today’s hybrids and electric vehicles, which use less gasoline than traditional cars, are subsidized by other vehicles even though both types may put the same wear and tear on roads.
Other cities in this year’s study include Albuquerque, N.M.; Billings, Mont.; Chicago; Miami; and Wichita, Kan. Last year, the experiment’s first, the computer system was tested in Austin, Texas; Boise, Idaho; Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh in North Carolina; and eastern Iowa.
The data from the first year has yet to be analyzed, said Kuhl. Participating cities were selected to mirror the nation’s demographics. Kuhl said Mainers will be randomly picked by computer to participate according to demographic requirements.
Oregon and Washington state are testing similar systems. Kuhl said the on-board computers are being used in Europe to change motorists’ behavior, such as charging them more to drive on congested roads at peak hours.
The computer is installed under the dashboard by technicians and is not supposed to be visible or to damage the vehicle in any way. Equipped with global positioning system technology, the computers can keep track of the different tax rates that apply in various jurisdictions where the car travels.
In the test, cars will receive a class rating according to fuel efficiency and will be taxed at that rating. The computer will store a record of taxes due based on where the vehicle travels. That information is uploaded into a data processing center.
Although volunteers will receive only mock tax bills, these will reflect the tax they would pay should the system be adopted.
Whether the mileage-based tax system is politically viable remains to be seen. Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, said the idea is intriguing if the federal government and other states cooperate on a system.
“Because of the political ramifications and practicality, it is not something Maine could do on its own,” she said.
Among the ramifications are privacy issues, although the computer system does not keep track of individual travel routes.
“Anytime you talk about the government putting a box in your car and using GPS,… people think they are being tracked,” said Kuhl.
There are other unanswered questions, such as how to enforce the billing system.
Rep. John Hinck D-Portland, a hybrid Toyota Prius owner who chairs the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee, said he would be against the system because of the troubling privacy issues raised by the government collecting mileage data.
But Hinck said he supports the objective of creating a fair system to raise money for highway maintenance and construction.
“I do think money for roads should be raised by those who use them,” Hinck said.
For now, researchers are just looking for a few game Mainers. They had no trouble creating a pool of several thousand potential volunteers at the locations they tested last year.
“People are genuinely interested,” Kuhl said.