CORVALLIS - As state transportation departments across the country scramble to find viable ways to pay for rising costs of road maintenance and bridge repairs, Oregon officials are exploring an alternative - a unique user fee based on miles driven instead of gallons burned.
The Oregon Department of Transportation wants to ensure that such a "vehicle miles traveled," or VMT fee, would be fair, affordable to implement, and will not infringe on personal privacy, and they have turned to researchers at the Oregon State University College of Engineering to develop several preliminary prototype systems that tap the latest in wireless and radio frequency technologies.
Researchers in OSU's Mobile Technology Solutions Laboratory will develop and test prototype systems capable of electronically counting vehicle miles traveled and wirelessly incorporating the user fee into fuel purchases.
If the OSU prototypes prove viable, the proposed VMT fee might one day replace the state's fuel tax. Oregon was the first state in the country to enact a fuel tax in 1919. Funded by a one-year ODOT grant, OSU industrial and manufacturing engineering professors David Kim and David Porter are researching several options for calculating the proposed user fee.
One of the engineering challenges behind the project is to design the system so that miles are calculated only within the state of Oregon, said Kim, who worked for 10 years at General Motors as an operations researcher before joining the OSU engineering faculty three years ago. Because Oregon has relatively few border crossings, it is feasible to place devices at all border crossings to wirelessly turn the systems on or off as vehicles pass by.
"All the technology needed for the entire system already exists," Kim said. "We simply need to put these together to achieve the goal."
"The core technology components needed to develop a prototype system already exist," Porter agreed, citing wireless toll calculation systems in use on the east coast and certain vehicle-mounted GPS receivers. "We have been tasked by ODOT to modify, integrate, and test these technologies to achieve the goal."
One of the several options the OSU researchers are investigating is an odometer radio tag that would count total miles traveled between refueling, then wirelessly download this mileage information at gas stations, where the user fee would be automatically calculated and added to the total fuel bill.
Another option is a device based on the global positioning system, capable of calculating only vehicle miles traveled.
But both Kim and Porter are quick to point out that the system developed for ODOT will only be able to calculate total miles traveled, and nothing more.
"People hear GPS and think their privacy might be affected," Kim said. "But that's not the case at all. This system will use GPS technology to calculate only total miles driven. It will not have the capability of storing any other usable information."
James Whitty, administrator for the ODOT Road User Fee Task Force, concurs.
"The aim is to design a new revenue system for our roads that can keep up as vehicle fuel efficiency continues to increase," Whitty said. "The goal is to develop technology that will facilitate collection of a mileage fee while not impinging upon anyone's privacy. We have directed OSU engineering researchers to make sure privacy is protected in the design of the technology."
"While a few other states are considering a similar user fee, those fee systems are only conceptual at this point," said Kim. "ODOT has tasked us with developing a system that really works." ODOT has a reputation for being at the leading edge of transportation innovations, said Chris Bell, associate dean of research at the College of Engineering. This project is "an ideal match for the expertise we have in our department of industrial and manufacturing engineering," he said.
The OSU College of Engineering is also engaged in other ODOT-related research, including studying the severity of cracks in more than 500 of the state's aging bridges and developing a fleet replacement plan for the agency.
OSU engineering students have also developed ways to manufacture the green fuel, biodiesel.