Thursday, August 19, 2004
By HANH KIM QUACH The Orange County Register
John Luster of Orange piloted his new silver Toyota Prius 300 miles up to the Sequoia National Park earlier this month, using just six gallons of gasoline.
Had Luster driven his Acura Integra, he would have used twice as much fuel - and paid twice as much gas tax.
But what's good for Luster (and the environment) is bad for state highway funds: The state got half as much tax revenue to deal with the same amount of wear and tear on the roads.
It's a looming problem as hybrids become more popular, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's government-reform commission has come up with a solution: Tax motorists based on the miles they drive, not the amount of gas they consume.
The idea from the California Performance Review is just that at this point: an idea. It would have to go through extensive debate to come to fruition.
But it's not at all far-fetched. Oregon will do a test run of such a "vehicle- miles traveled" system next year.
The plan, which still requires legislative approval there, would put a $100 global- positioning-system device in every new car in Oregon. The device would beam drivers' in-state mileage to a satellite, which would then send the information to the service station where the driver is refueling so the proper tax can be levied at the pump.
Three hundred drivers will be monitored for six months next year in the Eugene area in the pilot project. The U.S. Department of Transportation, Utah, New York and now California are closely watching for the results.
The proposal here raises a number of concerns: One is that it could discourage drivers from buying fuel-efficient cars. Another is that it could open the door to state surveillance of motorists.
THE RECOMMENDATIONS The California Performance Review Commission recommends developing a pilot project to test whether the state could levy a user fee based on how uch each driver uses roads. The report suggests a fee of .1 cents per mile traveled.
"You're setting up a system of surveillance allegedly to aid with taxation," said Annalee Newitz, policy analyst for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. "This is incredibly invasive."
This door has already been opened, though - sometimes by motorists themselves.
Security and convenience have already prompted thousands to mount trackable electronic devices in their vehicles.
LoJack security devices, mini radio transceivers mounted on an automobile, can be activated by authorities when a vehicle is stolen. Toll transponders and radio-frequency identifications help commuters pay tolls on the fly. And OnStar, the 24-hour help line, locates a vehicle using a global-positioning system and gives live assistance when drivers are lost or need help.
By and large, however, these technologies are used voluntarily.
James Whitty, who heads the Oregon pilot project for the state's transportation department, maintains the GPS would detect only whether the car is inside or outside of Oregon and how many miles it has traveled in state - not its every movement.
"There are people who hear 'GPS,' and they think it's some exotic military device," said Whitty, who said the state will not have the ability, or desire, to monitor drivers' traveling habits. The Oregon device would be a "glorified compass," he said.
Joan Borucki, chief deputy director at the California Transportation Commission and a member of the California Performance Review team that made the recommendation here, insists the device could not track residents' whereabouts.
"The bottom line is, they couldn't tell where these people have been. That's just not going to be there," she said.
The key question for some is what happens with the data the state does collect. The answer in the case of toll-collection devices already in use is that it can end up in the hands of law enforcement.
Motorists in Orange County, for example, can use FasTrak transponders mounted on their windshields to pay tolls on the Eastern, San Joaquin and Foothill toll roads. The FasTrak application tells them, "Your account information is only used by the toll roads, and we do not give or sell your information to anyone."
But the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which runs the Orange County toll roads, has shared some motorists' information with law enforcement under subpoena or when there was a legitimate criminal investigation, said spokeswoman Lisa Telles.
Right up there with the privacy debate is a fairness debate.
From the state's perspective, there needs to be a fair way to have motorists pay for building and maintaining roads they use.
"Eventually, if someday we switch to no-fossil fuel, we'd have to replace the funding source," said Joel Riphagen, transportation analyst for the nonpartisan Legislative Analysts' Office. "We really need to start looking at it as we begin to switch fuel sources or increase gas mileage."
But some drivers who have invested in fuel-efficient vehicles say a miles-driven tax would discourage people from buying energy-efficient vehicles and punish people who already own them.
"You will have a revolt coming out of your ears," said George Margolin, an inventor who lives in Newport Beach. Margolin and his wife, Cathy, traded in her Nissan 300Z for a Prius in March.
To improve the state's roads, Margolin said the state needs a steady stream of money and needs to come up with creative ways to pay for roads - such as getting more businesses that benefit from roads to pay for them. "You would not be doing that by increasing the cost of gas (through a miles-driven tax). Philosophically, that's a no- win situation."
Luster, who has had his Toyota Prius about a month, understands the state's bind and said he would be willing to pay higher taxes. However, he believes some of the money is misdirected.
"It's not right to put that money into nothing other than road building. We need to put that money into something that would get people around more efficiently," Luster said.
But if all 31 million vehicle owners switched to hybrids, the state would still face the same congestion and road- maintenance problems, policy analysts said.
"Hybrids are great. They use less fuel but take up exactly the same space on the road as a Hummer," said Dan Beal, manager of public policy for the Costa Mesa-based Automobile Club of Southern California.
He says the state is headed in the right direction in thinking about alternatives to paying for roads, but taxes based on miles driven are not flawless.
Charging a person using the San Diego (405) Freeway during rush hour in Los Angeles the same amount as a person flying up Interstate 5 in the Central Valley is a problem because it doesn't reflect a driver's "load" on the system.
"It's similar to going to a movie Friday night versus Tuesday afternoon," he said.
"Ultimately, what we need is a system where your use is based on when you use it, where you use it and the distance you travel on it," Beal said.
How much state gas tax you pay depends on the mileage of your make of car. Here’s an estimate for three cars, based on each traveling 15,000 miles per year. The tax, 18 cents per gallon, is levied at the pump.
Average miles per gallon Yearly gas tax
2004 Toyota Prius 51 $52.94
2004 Honda Accord 24 $112.50
2004 Hummer H1 11 $245.45
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