Tax man someday may ride with you.


Mar 11, 2001
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Tax man someday may ride with you.

States consider using locator devices to track those using roadways.

By LARRY SANDLER of the Journal Sentinel staff.

Last Updated: Nov. 18, 2000.

One day, perhaps, every car on the road will be equipped with a computer that uses satellite technology to record every mile you drive, and in which states and on which roads. Then the government will use that information to tax you for your driving.

That day could be just five to 10 years away. Wisconsin has joined eight other states and the federal government in paying for an $800,000 study of whether such a system could be created to replace the gas tax.

If that sounds Orwellian to you, you're not alone. State Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids), the Legislature's leading privacy advocate, calls the concept "a horrid idea. It is Big Brother in hearts, spades and clubs."

Researchers and transportation officials agree privacy concerns are among the biggest issues that would have to be dealt with before the system could be put in place.

But they're pressing ahead with the study, because they fear the growth of alternative-fuel cars could mean the end of the road for the gas tax. As a side benefit, they say the system would give every driver a satellite navigation unit and a way to call for help in an emergency.

Such a system also could lower gas prices, eliminate toll booths and allow businesses to build and run highways, added David Forkenbrock, one of the researchers leading the 2 1/2-year study.

Much of the technology already exists, in the form of the global positioning system units that have started to appear in cars. With GPS, a small computer in a car, boat or aircraft can use satellite signals to pinpoint the vehicle's location anywhere in the world, then find that location on a map and provide directions to any destination.

People are using GPS units now to find their way through unfamiliar cities. But the devices could be modified to collect tax data as well, said Forkenbrock, the director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Iowa.

With the maps in the GPS unit's database, the on-board computer could keep a record of how many miles each car or truck traveled on each road in each state. Drivers could be required to periodically download that data to a government computer network, perhaps at terminals installed in gas stations, Forkenbrock said.

Then a central government clearinghouse would analyze the data and mail all drivers bills assessing them a Wisconsin tax for miles driven in Wisconsin, an Illinois tax for miles driven in Illinois, etc. Some states might charge different rates for driving on interstate highways, local streets or other types of roads, Forkenbrock said.

Fueling the study is the fear that states could run out of cash to build and maintain roads if they keep relying on the gas tax.

"We know the gas tax is going to have increasing problems" as automakers produce more hybrid vehicles powered by a mixture of gas and electricity, alternative-fuel cars and other vehicles designed to get more mileage with less gas, Forkenbrock said.

With gas taxes now reaping $50 billion a year for state and federal transportation departments nationwide, the rise of fuel-efficient vehicles "is a very serious threat to the state's capacity to provide adequate transportation," Forkenbrock said.

In Wisconsin alone, the state gas tax raises more than $800 million a year and funds nearly two-thirds of the state transportation budget. That's almost twice as much as the state gets from vehicle registration and driver's license fees. And that money pays not only for state highways, but also for local roads, bus systems, trains and airports.

Wisconsin's Department of Transportation is contributing $50,000 to the study because of its concerns about the future of its main revenue source, said Casey Newman, a state transportation policy analyst.

Minnesota is leading the study, with funding from Iowa, Michigan, California, Kansas, North Carolina, Texas, Washington and the Federal Highway Administration, as well as Wisconsin.

"It would be irresponsible if we did not look at these long-term issues," said Adeel Lari, director of alternative transportation financing for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Schneider says he has been warning road-builders for years that the gas tax may not be able to sustain the highways of the future. Still, he said, that's no excuse for what he calls "a massive invasion of privacy that I don't think Americans will accept."

State Sen. Margaret Farrow (R-Elm Grove) agreed, saying, "We have to look at new technology, but we have to preserve what this country has always preserved, and that is the right of privacy."

Farrow, who has advocated finding new ways to pay for transportation, said that she didn't want to close off any areas of study, but that she believes this concept "would have to be very, very carefully scrutinized" to see if it would work.

That's exactly what the study is doing, Forkenbrock said. He's leading a team of lawyers and policy analysts examining the legal and governmental issues involved, while researchers at the University of Minnesota work on the technical details.

To address the privacy concerns, Forkenbrock said, the computers could be set up to record information only in general terms - not to keep track of exactly where drivers were at what time. States could set additional restrictions in the laws authorizing the system, such as prohibiting the information from being used for anything other than tax bills, he said.

Because people are traveling on public roads in full view of everyone, gathering this information "is really not much of an invasion of privacy," Forkenbrock said.

Schneider disagreed. For example, he said, a Wisconsin woman who drives to the Mayo Clinic for confidential treatment might not want to explain to her husband why they are being billed for travel in Minnesota.

Privacy aside, cost would be another issue, both for states and individuals. State Rep. David Brandemuehl (R-Fennimore), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said the idea under study would be "a pretty complicated system to implement and obviously very expensive."

Also, people who own older cars might be faced with bills of up to $2,000 to install GPS units, and that's a substantial sum for low-income residents, Lari noted.

On the other hand, widespread use of this taxing system could mean that GPS units would become standard equipment on new cars, Forkenbrock said. That means everyone with a new car would have a "spectacularly good" satellite navigation unit, with a feature that could summon help in an emergency with one touch of a button, he said.

"Public acceptance, I think, will hinge on what the public gets for this," Forkenbrock said.

In addition to built-in navigation units, Forkenbrock said, the system could:

Replace highway tolls and local wheel taxes such as the one rejected by Milwaukee's Common Council this month. Governments could simply build those charges into the driving taxes, which Forkenbrock said "would be a lot fairer than anything we have now" because they would be based on use.
Allow governments to charge different rates for trucks using different types of roads. That would be an incentive for truckers to stay on roads designed for big rigs, cutting wear and tear on other streets, he said.
Pave the way for businesses to build and operate private highways. Such efforts have been stymied by the difficulty of collecting tolls, but this system would allow those businesses to bill drivers through the same government clearinghouse as the states, Forkenbrock said.
Schneider said none of those advantages outweighed the threat to privacy.

"It's another silent encroachment (on individual rights), sold on the basis that, 'Oh, this is cool,' " Schneider said.

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