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Cars Are Getting Greener. Here’s A High Tech Alternative To The Gas Tax.

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"Cars Are Getting Greener. Here’s A High Tech Alternative To The Gas Tax."

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In 2012, Singapore piled up awards for its infrastructure: best infrastructure in the world, best public transportation system, top country for infrastructure investment. That same year, American televisions lit up with news of eight bridge collapses and five train derailments. President Obama made infrastructure investment a cornerstone of his 2012 State of the Union. “So much of America needs to be rebuilt,” he said.

So why can Singapore boast top-of-the-line infrastructure, when the U.S. is struggling to keep its roadways from falling apart? For one thing, because Singapore has a very simple way of paying for it: constant surveillance.

“In Singapore, all cars are tracked everywhere and you’re taxed by where you drive and when you drive,” Nate Cardozo of the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains. “If you’re driving on the same road at the same time that everyone else is, you pay more than if you drive on a not busy road.”

It’s an effective way to fund infrastructure in a security state like Singapore. “It makes sense in the context of Singapore where they can do pervasive tracking and they already do pervasive tracking in a bunch of other contexts,” Cardozo said. “In Singapore, there is no real concept of privacy.”

The U.S. is a whole other rodeo. “We don’t want the government to know where we are all the time,” Cardozo said.

But what if desperate times call for desperate measures?

13 Killed, 145 Injured

Around 6 pm on Wednesday, August 1, 2007, as hundreds made their daily commute home between the Twin Cities, the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River started to groan and creak. Within minutes, the deck truss buckled, sending cars flying into the river below. Thirteen people were killed, 145 were injured.

The collapse, while a tragedy, should not have been a surprise. The bridge had been the subject of several dubious inspection reports over the years, and just a year earlier, officials had warned of a possible collapse. Yet a plan to reinforce the bridge was put on pause in part because Minnesota Department of Transportation officials balked at the 2 million dollar price tag.

“There was a lot of debate in Minnesota about funding for bridge inspections and bridge repairs,” Pat Natale, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, told ThinkProgress, but “the governor at the time felt we didn’t need any more costs.”

This same cycle — debate over funding, deferred repairs, catastrophe — has repeated countless times all over the nation. The ASCE gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ in 2013. About a third of our roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Bridges built half a century ago are literally tilting under the weight of growing traffic; about 210 million people travel every day across bridges that could collapse at any moment. Deteriorating mass transit systems are scaling back service, even as other countries build high-speed, high-tech transit networks. The ASCE estimates it would require $3.6 trillion over the next six years to get America’s infrastructure up to a basically operable state — an unthinkable sum in today’s political climate.

In the next few months, as the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money, the situation will become even more urgent. According to the Obama administration’s analysis, about 112,000 road projects, 5,600 transit projects, and 700,000 construction jobs will be left in the lurch if the fund becomes insolvent. The administration has warned that, if Congress does not act, in just a few weeks it will have to start scaling back payments to states.

While Congress squabbles over the details of extending temporary funding for the next couple years, legislators seem wary to touch the central crisis at hand: that our way of paying for infrastructure has been broken for decades.

The Highway Trust Fund relies on the federal gas tax that every driver pays at the pump. But that tax is bringing in less and less money — partly because the tax has been stagnant at 18.4 cents on the gallon since 1993, even as inflation rises, and partly because new cars are becoming more efficient at burning fuel. “Greener” cars are good news for the climate, but bad news for transportation departments struggling within an archaic system to scrape together enough money to keep traffic flowing smoothly.

Like the rest of the country, Minnesota’s gas tax barely made a dent in the costs to repair the state’s abysmal infrastructure. Attempts to raise the state tax repeatedly failed in the legislature, in large part because the state’s Governor at the time, Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), had pledged to veto any tax increases whatsoever. That extra revenue might have generated more money to inspect and repair the I-35 bridge and others in similar condition. But since the Minnesota gas tax had not been raised since 1988, David Levinson of the University of Minnesota noted, “its purchasing power had diminished significantly, while the network was expanded and aged, and traffic levels increased.”

“There [were] actually several proposals that year to do some repairs on that bridge,” Natale said. But the legislature “defeated that. They just didn’t allow it to happen. The end result is, how much money did we spend replacing the bridge, and how many people were killed?”

The I-35 catastrophe rattled lawmakers’ attitudes. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) called the bridge disaster a “wake-up call” to raise the alarm over infrastructure deficits all over the country.

Even Pawlenty wavered. “After the bridge collapsed, he initially said that we need to do something about the funding for inspections and repairs,” Natale said. “That was what he said day 1. On day 4, he said, well we can fund this if we can find other things not to do.”

A few months before the collapse, the Minnesota DOT began studying a possible alternative to the gas tax: a plan that would charge drivers not based on how much gas they used, but on how many miles they actually drove. Each driver would be tracked by a GPS app on a smartphone installed in their car. The smartphone would log miles driven within the state and transmit the amount to an agency to process and calculate the charge.

Such a mileage-based tax fits the “pay what you use” spirit of the gas tax, and actually could be more equitable than the current system. Low-income drivers are more likely to have older cars that guzzle more gas, meaning they are paying more in taxes at the pump than a wealthy Prius or Tesla driver. The technology could also allow areas with more congestion, like major commuter corridors, to vary pricing — hiking the fee during rush hour, for instance — to reduce traffic.

A 2008 public opinion study on the mileage-based user fee found that the I-35 bridge failure had forced many Minnesotans to think more consciously about how the state paid for maintenance, and how a lack of funds was worsening the decay of roads and bridges they traveled on every day.

“I think the 35W Bridge collapse is a big wake up call that we can’t think we built these things once and they’re going to last forever,” one focus group member mused, according to the study.

“Because of the bridge, there was a lot more talk about work that had been deferred year after year, and putting a little bit of asphalt down in a hole, rather than doing what needed to be done to really fix it,” another driver said. “So that this year we ended up with potholes that were twice as big and deep as before, they were all over the place.”

“This one thing, to me it comes out of the bridge collapse, but that’s the discussion of funding for maintenance,” another participant said. “Nationally as well as Minnesota.”

But soon enough, the feeling that something needed to change dissipated. The mileage fee research stalled.

A Hi-Tech Experiment

The first gas tax was born in Oregon in 1919, after a campaign to “get Oregon out of the mud” called for a way to make drivers pay for new roads in the state, which at the time had just 25 miles of paved road. The tax revenue funded the construction of the Pacific Highway, making Oregon the first state west of the Mississippi to build a highway the entire length of the state. The tax quickly caught on in other states, eventually becoming the national standard to measure road usage.

A century later, Oregon is trying to get rid of the gas tax entirely.

“In the early 1900s, when all vehicles got the same gas mileage, [the gas tax] was a good measure of how much you used the road,” Michelle Godfrey of the Oregon Department of Transportation said. “Now that we have a wide variety of vehicles, and more and more of them are using less and less gas, it’s not an actual user pays principle, where the more you drive the more you pay. In fact it’s the opposite for, say, an electric vehicle.”

As people pay less tax at the pump, the funding situation is reaching a breaking point. “Oregon is like every other state in the nation as a whole. Revenues are plummeting and needs are increasing just as dramatically,” Godfrey said. “It’s a huge deal here…We’re facing, just like everybody, the lack of federal funding for next year. And what’s that going to do?”

So Oregon is getting creative. The state will pioneer a mileage-based road usage charge, like the one that started to take shape in Minnesota, in July 2015. The program is starting out small: just 5,000 drivers will log their miles, paying a tax of 1.5 cent per mile. Since it won’t start until next year, the DOT doesn’t yet know how exactly drivers will track mileage: maybe a smartphone app, or a GPS, or an odometer reading. Eventually, the DOT hopes to extend the road usage charge to every driver in the state.

What’s holding them back from full implementation? The technology to track mileage accurately is out there — but the idea still gives many people the creeps. The government collecting data on citizens’ movements? Sounds straight out of a dystopian film.

Oregon tested the waters with a small pilot program in 2007, but ran into these privacy fears. The pilot required drivers to install a GPS device in their car, which transmitted drivers’ miles to a reader in gas pumps. The GPS only logged the number of miles driven, not where or when people drove. Still, “people didn’t like that,” Godfrey said. They simply did not want the government forcing them to use any kind of technology.

This isn’t all irrational paranoia. Especially since Edward Snowden’s revelations of secret mass spying by the National Security Agency, Americans are understandably leery of government data collection. And as Nate Cardozo of the EFF explained to ThinkProgress, location tracking is an even more revealing surveillance tool than many people realize.

“Location data is the single most sensitive type of personal data that we have. It’s more sensitive than the phone metadata tracking that the NSA is doing,” Cardozo said. “I can learn more about you from your location than I can from actually listening to your phone calls. From your location I can know where you live, where you work, which psychiatrist you see, where you worship, who you’re having an affair with, where your kids go to school. I can know pretty much everything about you from your location.”

But location tracking is already embedded in our daily lives. The hard reality of the digital era is that we’re all being watched, to some extent. Massive amounts of personal data are collected, bought, sold, and plugged into algorithms every day. When it comes to the Oregon program, “some folks are saying, Big Brother knows where you are. My first question to those folks is, do you have an iPhone?” Pat Natale asked. “They know where you are. You can be found.”

The New Surveillance State

For most people, the traditional image of the surveillance state involves grim-faced government bureaucrats who literally watch everyone through an expansive network of cameras. They open mail, bug phones, and keep dossiers on every citizen who dares to speak up against the state.

But today’s high-tech world makes surveillance far more complicated and nuanced than even George Orwell could have imagined. Data collection is easier than ever; the government, private companies, and really anyone with a WiFi connection can access intimate details about individuals without trying very hard. Many of us often unwittingly volunteer personal information dozens of times a day to websites, mobile apps, and social networks. As the NSA leaks revealed, this data free-for-all has opened new avenues for detailed surveillance that simply did not exist before.

“We all carry around cell phones, for the most part with us every day, and those all verify our location,” Godfrey pointed out. “We don’t even realize how much of our personal information is locked into that cell phone as you go with it.”

Nine in ten Americans own a cell phone, which constantly sends your location back to the phone company. More than half of us use smartphones loaded with GPS-using apps and an operating system that broadcasts our identity and location to any WiFi network that will listen.

But “when it’s government that’s accumulating your data, people get a little more anxious about that,” Godfrey said. “It’s just a matter of mistrust of government, and unfortunately that’s where we’re at.”

Funnily enough, the Big Brother image made Oregon lawmakers extra careful to include robust privacy protections in the bill. The state must destroy data after 30 days, and users must be given at least one mileage-reporting method that does not require vehicle location technology. The data is also anonymized.

By contrast, the private sector is the Wild West. There’s no real legal framework governing what companies can or cannot collect from users. Google, for instance, is already collecting drivers’ locations via Waze, a navigation app that uses GPS to track where and how fast users are driving to determine traffic patterns. Data brokers, using inscrutable pathways, compile information from dozens of websites to build detailed profiles with labels of users ranging from “Married Sophisticate,” “Winter Activity Enthusiast,” and “Expectant Parent,” to more invasive identifications like “Rape Sufferers” or “AIDS/HIV Sufferers.”

There’s also no clear way to know how much information these companies have, how they got it, or what they do with it. As the White House’s big data report, released in May, notes: “The sources of data that flow into these [databases] are sometimes not publicly disclosed or may even be shielded as proprietary business information.” We do know that it’s available to the highest bidder. Often, that’s an advertiser who wants to personalize ads that show up on your favorite sites. Sometimes it’s the NSA.

Your iPhone knows where you've been.

Your iPhone knows exactly where you’ve been.

As online services proliferate, they’ve outgrown regulations cooked up decades before the birth of the iPhone. Meanwhile, we’re getting more comfortable with the idea that details of our lives — our daily routines, our relationships, our memories — are a new kind of free market currency we must trade for convenience. As James Ball of the Guardian warned upon the launch of the Google Maps app, “As ever with free services, users aren’t the customers, but rather simply a commodity.”

Some have tried to challenge this system, with discouraging results. Apple successfully killed a high profile lawsuit last year accusing the company of collecting location data on iPhone users even after location services were supposedly disabled. But most people remain oblivious to their digital paper trail, simply trusting companies to have their best interests at heart. Without the public will behind them, efforts to regulate private data collection have gone nowhere.

Doing Data Collection Right

Given the huge gap in trust between the government and the private sector, Oregon is hoping to eventually cede control of the road usage charge program to a third party company, like a phone company. “We could foresee at some point where this would be almost out of the hands of government entirely,” Godfrey said, envisioning a system that “’is just managed by third party companies, along with cell phone bills or insurance bills, and the revenue is just submitted to ODOT on a regular basis by those companies.”

Such a partnership could be a potential windfall for companies: a government-mandated treasure trove of mileage data, which is still extremely valuable even when aggregated and anonymized. “They get the benefit of increased customers, of having additional services they could earn business on,” Godfrey said. “It could really be a win-win that way.”

Since the program is in its early stages, it’s hard to tell how this will play out. Theoretically, Godfrey said, a cell phone provider could ask clients to share their mileage data with advertisers or another company in exchange for discounts. “There’s been discussion of how data might be treated for customers of, say, a phone company, who explicitly consent to have their data shared to another program to get the benefit of discounts or other services,” Godfrey said. “But the customer would explicitly say, I want this service, please share my data.”

This may help reassure people worried about government tracking, but is it really better to perpetuate the constant, indiscriminate exchange of personal data between companies? “It is a tender line to walk,” Godfrey acknowledged.

Explicit consent sounds promising. In practice, however, almost no one reads privacy policies before signing on to a new service. The average privacy policy takes ten minutes to read. More troublingly, 75 percent of consumers assume that as long as a site has a privacy policy, their data won’t be shared with third parties.

Of course, unfettered government access poses its own problems. When data is held by a private company, for example, law enforcement must get a judge to sign off on a warrant. But if we’re giving it away voluntarily to a government agency, law enforcement can get their hands on it much more easily. “Once location data is in the hands of the government, it’s not going to stay within DOT. If DOT has it, law enforcement is going to get it,” EFF’s Cardozo warned.

The Supreme Court restricted the government’s ability to use technology to track individuals in United States v. Jones, which stated that police officers cannot put a GPS device on an individual’s car without a warrant. But “if we have a road tax that includes tracking where the vehicles are at all times, the government doesn’t need to do anything. They don’t need to put anything on my car to find out where I am,” Cardozo said.

We may be facing a rare moment to invent a new norm. Data collection is only becoming more intrinsic to daily life, forcing us to ask: is it possible to collect data without invading privacy?

The mileage program could be a perfect opportunity to figure out how to answer that question with a resounding yes. Americans are finally starting to get suspicious about the invisible ways our privacy is violated every day. And in order to fix our infrastructure crisis, the government needs to get the public on board with mileage charges.

Most popular data-driven services tend to tack on privacy protections as an afterthought. Privacy is simply not considered a lucrative business model. As NPR’s Steve Henn observed recently, “the graveyard of failed Silicon Valley startups is littered with companies that promised greater privacy protections.”

But a brand new mileage program actually depends on convincing the public that their data is safe. A program like Oregon’s could incorporate strict privacy protections from the get-go, becoming a model for how to do data collection right. And if Oregon can do it, the rest of the nation may follow suit. “We’ve got a number of other states that are looking to us to see how it’s going to go,” Godfrey said.

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