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Senate transportation chairman intrigued by black box technology for infrastructure funding

Senate transportation chairman intrigued by black box technology for infrastructure funding

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
November 15, 2013
[post_thumbnail]Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, says a tax on miles driven by a vehicle should be discussed by lawmakers in addressing the state's infrastructure needs.

The quest for more robust funding of Idaho’s roads, bridges and highways could someday include use of so-called “black box” data tracking technology, something under discussion as well in a number of other states.

“I’d say that all options are on the table,” Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, chairman of the Idaho Senate Transportation Committee, told IdahoReporter.com, about black box technology, which are devices in motor vehicles that track every mile driven and then transmit that data to government agencies. “I need to know more about it,” he stated, “but it is my understanding that Oregon has done a pretty good job with this.”

For nearly five years, Idaho officials have been studying what the state needs in order to adequately maintain and expand the state’s transportation infrastructure. Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who headed Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding between 2009 and 2011, has been calling for road and bridge upgrades for at least the last two years.

The task force estimated a $543 million tab to fix all of Idaho’s current problems, with $262 million of that just to retain the status quo on road and bridge conditions.

“I’m still using that old saying from the Mr. Goodwrench advertisements,” Little told IdahoReporter.com. “You can pay me now or you can pay me later, and it’ll be more expensive to pay me later.”

The task force heard testimony from national experts, officials from state and local governments, transportation-related organizations and members of the public. “We summarized our findings in a report back at the end of 2011,” Little told IdahoReporter.com. “In 2012, I met with the appropriate legislative committees about this as well.”

In March, near the end of this year’s legislative session, Brackett presented to the House Transportation and Defense Committee several legislative proposals that would raise taxes in the state by more than $200 million a year. Noting at the time that Idaho suffers from a shortfall “in both maintenance and new construction” of highways, his proposals included tax increases on both vehicle sales and rentals; an increase in the statewide fuel tax; increased taxes on the sale of automotive tires and batteries; and increased vehicle and driver’s license fees.

Those proposals didn’t advance very far before the legislative session adjourned for the year, but Brackett says that the effort was still worthwhile. “The purpose of introducing the legislation at that time was to get a discussion started about transportation funding, and for those purposes it was very useful.”

For his part, Little has consistently called for a “user pay” transportation system in the state, where those who use the roads the most are the ones who pay for them the most. Brackett’s proposals to raises taxes on vehicles and other vehicle-related consumer products fit this “user pay” paradigm.

Similarly, black box technology can be used to advance the user pay approach as well. As the devices track every mile driven on a vehicle and record the mileage, that data can then be reported to government agencies and vehicle owners can be taxed on a “per mile driven” basis.

Last year the U.S. Senate passed legislation authorizing a $90 million program to test the black box devices, but the U.S. House of Representatives defeated the measure. Despite this, Oregon, as Brackett noted, has already begun using the technology to generate more highway funding. Other states that have either begun pilot programs with black boxes or are considering the use of the devices include Nevada, California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.

Little told IdahoReporter.com that the per-gallon fuel tax is becoming a less reliable source of transportation funding, mainly because vehicles have for many years been on a trajectory of consuming less fuel per mile.

Brackett wonders if taxing drivers by the miles driven could be a solution, but the use of black box devices is fraught with challenges. “Obviously one of the immediate concerns that would have to be addressed is the issue of people’s privacy,” Brackett said.

So will black boxes soon be a part of Idaho’s future?

“Conventional wisdom says you don’t raise taxes in an election year,” Brackett said of looking ahead to the 2014 session of the Legislature. “But the problem of funding is urgent, and what we really need is a grassroots effort of people across the state to tell their legislators to take a serious look at this. We need to consider our options, but we need to do it carefully.”

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