Leila Navidi / File photo
Tuesday, March 30, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
The Nevada Department of Transportation has quietly developed a device it could use to track vehicles and charge drivers based on distance, routes and times of day they travel the state’s roadways.
The “black box,” built in cooperation with UNLV and UNR, is part of the state’s effort to find a better way to fund highway construction and maintenance. The Transportation Department wants to begin testing the boxes within the next year, but is encountering opposition from privacy advocates.
The black boxes would represent a dramatic shift away from the gasoline and diesel taxes that have paid for publicly funded roads. But a change is necessary, officials say, because as vehicles have become more fuel efficient, the fuel tax hasn’t kept pace with infrastructure needs.
The response from transportation policy experts has been to push a system that charges taxes based on vehicle miles traveled — or VMTs. This includes, in some locations, paying more for driving during peak times.
But Rebecca Gasca, public advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the state’s proposal “raises huge red flags.” The group will oppose “any information-collecting method that would threaten individual privacy rights and allow the government to create an infrastructure for routine surveillance of citizens,” she said.
The state Transportation Department will hold a public meeting today in Reno and another in late April in Las Vegas to discuss moving forward with a pilot program to test ways of tracking miles driven. The pilot program would offer volunteers a variety of options, including placement of one of the department’s black boxes in their vehicles.
“We’d offer a range of alternatives — from odometer readings all the way up to full GPS units that could capture the time of day, the route you are on, the area you are in,” said Scott Rawlins, the Transportation Department’s deputy director. “At the end of the day, it will be the policymakers who ultimately determine what’s right for the public.”
Zong Tian, an assistant professor at UNR, leads the team of researchers developing the device. (The Transportation Department and the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County each contributed $100,000 to the project; the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada contributed $60,000. If they were manufactured for use in Nevada, state transportation officials say they would cost about $200-$500 each.)
Tian said the device can be adjusted to accommodate “different levels of privacy protection: It could just be summary data — how many miles you drove on state highways, how many on local roads. It doesn’t have to track every second of movement.”
While privacy advocates acknowledged many aspects of the proposal have yet to be resolved, Gasca said, “I doubt there will be any answers that mollify our privacy concerns.”
Gasca said her group would support an annual odometer reading, but transportation policy experts note that would not tax out-of-state drivers for their use of Nevada’s roads.
Still, the state’s effort to find an alternative to the gas tax does have its supporters.
The Nevada Highway Users Coalition, which includes labor unions, public officials and construction company associations, said it supports moving forward with the VMT study.
“There are a lot of concerns, but this is the beginning of a study,” said Buzz Harris, assistant executive director of the Nevada chapter of the Associated General Contractors. “This is the beginning of going through iterations of how this is going to come about. Obviously, our system is broken.”
Nevada will face a $6 billion shortfall in highway infrastructure funding by 2016, according to Transportation Department estimates.
Meanwhile, the state’s gasoline tax has remained at its current level of 23 cents — which includes local and state taxes — since 1992.
Transportation consultants say that as cars become more fuel efficient, and hybrids and electric cars become more common, the share they pay for highway wear and maintenance declines.
“We can have a debate for the next 45 years on privacy issues, it’s not even a worthy debate,” said Tom Skancke, a transportation consultant based in Las Vegas. “People worried about being tracked should give up their cell phones. Give up OnStar.
“It’s a cultural shift, but we have to make it. Are people not going to like it? Absolutely.”
Skancke said future federal transportation bills could include funding for VMT pilot programs, even though President Barack Obama has opposed such proposals.
Rawlins said, “The bottom line is I believe a certain sector of the public out there does not mind. They utilize OnStar system in their vehicle. If they have an emergency, they want rescue officials to find them. They see a benefit.
“Maybe we have an opt-in type system, where you might get a better rate per mile based on the technology you’re using.”
The purpose of the pilot program is to accumulate enough data so the Legislature can make an informed policy decision.
Paul Enos, CEO of the Nevada Motor Transport Association, said his group is primarily concerned about an increase in collection costs with a shift from a fuel tax to one based on tracking miles traveled.
Collecting the current fuel tax requires low administrative overhead, he said, while pilot programs in other states have shown VMT systems to be costlier.
Enos said right now, the administrative cost on fuel tax is just 2 1/2 cents on the dollar. Other states’ pilot programs have had costs of up to 20 percent.