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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Pay As You Go

Air Date: Week of December 3, 2004

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Imagine your odometer determining how much you pay at the pump, and you’d be close to the proposal some California and Oregon officials are testing out. Their goal is to ultimately reduce auto emissions by charging drivers a fee for every mile they drive. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet talks with host Steve Curwood about just how this might work.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

With gas prices so high, it’s even more difficult for governments to raise gas taxes that support road maintenance. So, editorial pages in California and elsewhere have been, well, if not exactly aflame, they’ve been "akindle" over a proposal to pay for wear and tear on the roads by electronically tracking just how many miles people drive, and then charging them a fee, per mile, at the gas pump. And with me to explain this idea a bit further is Living on Earth’s Western Bureau Chief Ingrid Lobet. Hi there, Ingrid.

LOBET: Hi Steve.

CURWOOD: So, tell us more about this. Folks could be taxed by the mile? I think we’ve always been taxed by the mile, haven’t we?

LOBET: That’s one way to look at it because there is kind of a hefty fee that every state charges on each gallon of gas: 18 cents a gallon in California, and another 18 cents by the federal government. And that money goes, or it's supposed to go, to keep up with road wear. And back when cars all got similar miles per gallon, that worked out to be roughly equivalent to a tax per mile. But the people whose job it is to worry about roads in the future say that since that per gallon charge is not indexed to inflation – and has not increased since 1994, and we're all driving more miles all the time – states just aren't taking in enough money to cover costs.

CURWOOD: And now, with hybrid cars beginning to sell, I suppose since they require less gas – and in fact, there are even some, what, no-gas cars on the horizon – states must be looking down the road, so to speak, and thinking, Hmm. If our income is going to be linked to gas sales, we'll never be able to pay for our roads.

LOBET: Right, exactly. So, they're looking for a way to change the way we fund public transportation and roads.

CURWOOD: Now, we’ve always had toll roads, but where did the idea of charging people for all the miles they drive come from?

LOBET: Well, apparently it's been around for many years, but the technology to make it work hasn't. But now, with electronic toll booth reading and transponders, a lot of places are experimenting. In fact, one researcher, Brian Taylor of UCLA, has found 88 cases or places where there’s some form of charging by the mile or road use already underway.

And in Oregon, two researchers at Oregon State University came up with a way to get the GPS in a new car to communicate with an odometer to record how many miles a car travels in Oregon. And that’s going to allow Oregon to begin a pilot program next month that will charge people for their Oregon miles instead of taxing gallons of gas.

CURWOOD: And then how do you get charged for the miles?

LOBET: Well, apparently there’s more than one way you could be charged. But in Oregon it looks like you’ll be at the gas pump, and the odometer miles will be sent to the pump via a small radio transmitter. So you fill up, and the regular gas tax that people usually pay will be subtracted, and a fee per mile will be rung up instead.

CURWOOD: And California might try something similar?

LOBET: Yeah, that’s right. People are talking about here right now because Governor Schwarzenegger has chosen a new chief of the Department of Motor Vehicles and she likes this kind of idea. And it’s also part of the big new state reorganization plan that we have. But it’s not even anywhere near the Legislature yet.

CURWOOD: So Ingrid, tell me, under these scenarios does everyone pay the same mileage charge or tax regardless of the kind of vehicle that they drive?

LOBET: Well, that’s really a key question and it hasn’t been decided yet. Some experts believe that the rate should vary by vehicle weight or by whether you're using a road at a peak time. London is experimenting with a system like that and has seen some real benefits in traffic and in air pollution. The idea that transportation experts have at least is that they’d really like to see people pay for their real use in a way that the payment naturally increases as use increases.

CURWOOD: What about privacy here, Ingrid? I mean, if there’s a mileage system or a peak hour system, and especially under a system where something is tracking which roads you’re driving on, I mean, wouldn't the government end up knowing an awful lot about where we're going?

LOBET: That is definitely a concern for some people. In Oregon they're very careful to say that their system is not going to know where you drive. But it will know when you cross the Oregon border, and it's not hard to imagine a judge giving law enforcement access to that information to investigate a crime and, perhaps, the information could end up somewhere else.

CURWOOD: Ingrid Lobet is Living on Earth’s Western Bureau Chief. Thanks, Ingrid.

LOBET: You’re welcome.

 

 

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