Paying for Pavement

Vehicle mileage fee could replace the gas tax
Working with the Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon State University engineers conducted the only real-world test of a road tax system based on miles traveled.

Working with the Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon State University engineers conducted the only real-world test of a road tax system based on miles traveled.

Praise the gas tax. For every gallon pumped into pickups, SUVs and miserly subcompacts, Oregonians put 24¢ into the state highway fund and another 18.3¢ into the federal. On top of that, two Oregon counties (Washington and Multnomah) and 21 cities add their own levies for local roads. In 2005, about 80 percent of Oregon’s road revenues depended on fuel taxes.

Since 1919, when Oregon became the first state in the nation to levy a gas tax, the revenue stream has been as reliable as winter rain in Portland. Today, it generates about $400 million annually, but in the near future, with the push for energy independence and electric cars in particular, paying for pavement may become more difficult. Fewer gallons in our vehicles will mean less money to keep roads, highways and bridges safe and in good repair.

As Nissan, General Motors and other manufacturers continue to develop electric vehicles, there is still only one demonstrated alternative to a gas tax in the nation: Oregon’s vehicle mileage fee concept. In a pilot test organized by the Oregon Department of Transportation and completed in 2007, Oregon State University engineers showed that such a system is technically viable.

When the project began four years earlier, monitoring mileage was a new venture for OSU’s Mobile Technology Solutions Laboratory. Director David Porter specializes in data capture and analysis, and, while colleague David Kim worked for General Motors for 10 years before coming to OSU, he and his team simulated production line efficiencies (they were honored in 2005 for saving GM more than $2 billion). Nevertheless, ODOT had decided to create an electronic data collection system, says agency manager Jim Whitty, and was attracted by the engineers’ expertise in combining on-the-fly detection (laser scanning, bar coding, radio frequency identification) with communications and data management.

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In a presentation to an ODOT task force (the Road User Fee Task Force, also known as “rough-tough”), Porter and Kim reviewed a range of technology options for recording mileage electronically and transmitting data to computer-equipped gas pumps. “ODOT saw we had expertise in evaluating technologies, what potentially would work for the requirements given by the legislature,” says Porter. “So we wrote the functional requirements and technical specifications of the technology. Then we found a company that could implement it. We tested it and administered the technology portion of the pilot for ODOT.”

Testing, Testing

It wasn’t the first technology pilot test for Porter and his team. In an evaluation of flat-bed scanning technologies for PSC Corporation of Eugene (now Psion Teklogix, an international mobile computing company), they had built and operated a supermarket check-out stand. For the U.S. Post Office, they had tested an invisible-ink labeling system that could speed the processing of magazines and catalogs. They had done projects for the U.S. Army, Symbol Technologies and Wavelink Corporation.

Nevertheless, the Portland test was an eye-opener. Porter and Kim had tried out the mileage tracking devices in their own cars in Corvallis, but in Portland, they would be working with 285 motorists and two eastside independent gas stations. In addition to different vehicle brands and makes, there would be comparisons of two different systems, one based on GPS (global positioning system) technology and the other on a diagnostic device, standard equipment in cars made after 1996. And when things went wrong, they would have to drive the 160-mile round trip to make repairs.

As with any new technology, things did go wrong. Just producing the devices turned out to be more difficult than planned, but a custom electronics manufacturer, MegaTech of Corvallis, stepped in to finish the job. Other problems cropped up as the pilot test got under way: dead car batteries, stolen GPS units and unreliable data links.

Fortunately, those were the exceptions to a system that otherwise worked smoothly. For most participants, the mileage monitoring devices operated flawlessly and transferred data to gas station billing systems without missing a byte. In its final report, ODOT concluded that “using existing technology in new ways, a mileage fee could be implemented to replace the gas tax as the principal revenue source for road funding.”

Privacy Concerns

The project spurred plenty of comment on news media websites, most often about motorists’ privacy. “We always do our best to avoid putting that element at risk,” says Porter. “We feel confident that we will be able to protect privacy to a very high level.” Still, he agrees, some people might oppose the technology regardless of engineered safeguards.

The vehicle mileage fee concept needs further testing, and Whitty envisions another pilot project using “open-architecture” technologies. “We learned a lot in the first test, especially about public acceptance,” he says. “People like the idea of having a choice, and we’d like to allow motorists to use any kind of technology they want as long as it meets standards for accuracy.”

At the federal level, congressman Earl Blumenauer has proposed legislation (HR 3311) that calls for continued research and pilot tests for a nationwide Road User Fee Pilot Project. Such a system would have to address concerns such as privacy, public acceptance, ease of compliance and administrative cost

Meanwhile, Porter and Kim are working with ODOT on another intelligent transportation technology, roadside devices that record vehicle speeds. By delivering near real-time data to Web-accessible traffic maps, they hope to help drivers avoid congestion as they plan their routes. A test is slated in the next year for U.S. Hwy. 99W near Portland.

To support OSU research on highway safety and convenience, contact the OSU Foundation, 800-354-7281.

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