Starting this week, there are drivers in California who are being tracked by the government. Voluntarily.
If you put tape over your webcam (like Mark Zuckerberg), double-check your smartphone's location services once a week or just plain look over your shoulder a lot, then this "pay-by-mile" Road Charge Pilot Program might freak you out a little.
The idea is that as cars, including electric vehicles and hybrids, become more fuel-efficient, our system of paying to repair and maintain roads via gasoline taxes is becoming less effective.
In other words, we're shortchanging infrastructure with a gas tax because, while cars are still tearing up our roads, they're sipping fewer and fewer gallons of fossil fuel. This is good for the environment but bad for the state budget.
And so a nine-month pilot program to test out paying a tax by the mile is under way. It includes options such as a permit for a block of time (with unlimited miles), a permit for a block of miles, manual odometer readings, a plug-in tracker, a smartphone app tracker and built-in tracking on late-model vehicles.
“We’re proud that thousands of Californians have signed up to volunteer for the California Road Charge Pilot Program,” Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty says.
Volunteers will not be paying actual taxes. They'll just be going through the motions (by making "simulated payments"), with a report on the program to go to various state bureaucracies next year. The Legislature then will decide what to do next.
"The fuel excise tax only funds approximately $2.3 billion of work to maintain the 50,000 lane-miles and nearly 13,000 state-owned bridges on the state highway system," Caltrans said in a statement. "This leaves nearly $5.7 billion in unfunded repairs each year."
Indeed, as we reported recently, national transportation organization TRIP says California has a $59 billion, 10-year backlog of road repairs and maintenance. We have some of the roughest roads in the nation; only Hawaii's are worse, TRIP found.
Even critics of the pay-by-mile idea acknowledge that we need to find a different way of taxing drivers. The concern is over privacy.
Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was on the technical advisory committee that led to the pay-by-mile pilot program. His victory was ensuring volunteers could "pay" without being tracked.
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"You can do odometer readings," he says. "We wouldn't object to that. There are ways you can design the system to collect money from people without invading privacy."
Asked if there is a way that the state could do GPS tracking with the promise that data would otherwise be kept private, Tien responds: "The problem is if an entity would do that and make that promise, the FBI and courts could also order them to preserve that data or hand it over as soon as they get it. Giving it to the government and trusting them doesn't work."
Jamie Court, president of Santa Monica–based Consumer Watchdog, has similar concerns. But he believes the move toward pay-by-mile taxation is "inevitable."
"It's wise to test a program like this and give people alternatives to location-based tracking," he says.