Big Brother wants to know exactly how far Americans are driving — and he wants them to pay for it too.
Tucked away on page 508 of the U.S. Senate’s 2,700-page, so-called “infrastructure” bill, are the plans for a national “per mile fee” pilot program. And it is exactly what it sounds like — the more you drive, the more you pay.
More concerning than cost is privacy. In the name of fighting “climate change” and funding future infrastructure, the federal government would most likely have to track everywhere Americans drive at varying degrees, all while reportedly keeping private data safe.
At first, and on a strictly volunteer basis, the secretary of transportation would track participants from all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico using various methods to record vehicle miles. The secretary of the treasury would annually establish a per mile user fee for “passenger motor vehicles, light trucks, and medium- and heavy-duty trucks,” and the amount charged could vary between vehicle types and weight classes to “reflect estimated impacts on infrastructure, safety, congestion, the environment, or other related social impacts.”
The secretary of transportation would start piecing the $10 million pilot program together no more than 90 days after the bill’s passage and would implement the plan no more than a year later, according to the text.
Possible recording methods listed in the bill include:
- Third-party on-board diagnostic (OBD-II) devices.
- Smartphone applications.
- Telemetric data collected by automakers.
- Motor vehicle data obtained by car insurance companies.
- Data from the States that received a grant under section 6020 of the FAST Act.
- Motor vehicle data obtained from fueling stations.
- Any other method that the Secretary considers appropriate.
Ultimately, the per mile fee pilot program is reportedly designed “to restore and maintain the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund; and (B) to improve and maintain the surface transportation system,” according to the text. It also supposedly presents an alternative to the gas tax, which continues to bring in less revenue every year as vehicles become more fuel efficient and/or electric.
The federal government has been searching for a way to continue bringing in transportation-related taxes to boost the Highway Trust Fund, according to a report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), during Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on April 14, said that “the Highway Trust Fund, which is the source of funding for federal surface transportation projects, is once again – as it has over the last several years – facing a cash shortfall. This shortfall must be addressed for us to move forward with a [reauthorization] bill.”
The hearing focused on using vehicle miles traveled or VMT user-fee as a means of remedying the growing impact of increased fuel efficiency and the slow phasing in of electric vehicles on the current gas tax system. AASHTO noted that there has been no increase in the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.
“Alongside improvements over the last few decades in fuel efficiency, increased use of alternative fuel vehicles, the loss of fuel tax purchasing power, and the ever-growing costs of maintaining the nation’s transportation network,” there is recognition that our current funding model is not sustainable “to keep pace with long-term system needs,” according to the report, which also named climate change as the main reason to consider a per mile fee system.
The per mile fee is not a new concept. Several states have employed their own pilot programs over the years, mostly in Democrat-run states.
In 2015, Oregon established its own pilot called the OReGO Program, which is the state’s third iteration of a road usage charge (RCU) program. The first was launched in 2007 and the second one in 2012.
The program uses two mileage-reporting options and three different account management vendors according to the BATIC Institute, one which involved GPS tracking and one that did not:
- A plug-in Mileage Reporting Device (MRD) with GPS that reports on all miles driven, fuel consumed, and delineates between miles driven within and outside of Oregon. Any miles driven outside of Oregon with this option are not charged the per mile fee.
- A plug-in MRD without GPS that reports on all miles driven and fuel consumed but does not delineate between miles driven across state lines. Because the miles are not differentiated, all miles are presumed to be taxable miles driven within the state.
The New York Times reported on per mile fee programs in 2010, including Oregon’s initial program, saying RCU’s raise “Orwellian questions.”
Two former secretaries of transportation joined a group of experts in 2010 to propose the VMT tax as a long-term solution for transportation funding, according to the Times. The two secretaries, Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner, “urged Congress to phase in the VMT tax over a decade.”
The Times continued:
In a report (pdf) from the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, they acknowledged that the public will have privacy concerns about the tax, but “in reality, the infringement on personal privacy need not exceed that already associated with other technological conveniences such as cell phones and credit cards.”
But some experts told the Times that just because the technology exists does not mean it should be used to track transportation data.
“If you think about it, you’ll realize that your location history indicates where you sleep, where you work, who you sleep with, who you go to business meetings with, where you go to church, what political meetings you attend, what nightclubs you go to,” said Peter Eckersley, senior staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“These facts about people are astonishingly sensitive. And we don’t want to build a permanent tracking system for those by accident,” he said.
For the per mile program in the so-called infrastructure bill, the secretary will organize a committee to “create a public awareness campaign” to assess threats to participant data and “equity.” Specifically, the committee will include “data security experts with expertise in personal privacy,” “consumer advocates, including privacy experts,” and “advocacy groups focused on equity.”
One year after volunteers begin participating in the program and each year after, the secretary of transportation and the secretary of the treasury will submit a report to the Committee on Environment and Public Works of the Senate and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives.
The report would detail how well participant privacy was maintained, whether the per mile fee can sustain the Highway Trust Fund, and how the fee impacts low-income commuters, among other measures. Similar congestion taxes have historically been found to cost more for rural households, as people who do not live in cities typically drive more to complete basic everyday tasks.
The Mineta Institute, founded by former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, reported that public support of a mileage fee has increased to 53 percent from 33 percent in 2010. In contrast, 75 percent of Republicans oppose a vehicle mileage tax, according to Club for Growth.
Notably, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg floated a “vehicle miles” tax in March before walking back his statement.
“No, that’s not part of the conversation about this infrastructure bill,” Buttigieg replied when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked if a mileage fee was under consideration.