Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Is the VMT tax really dead?

(originally composed June 10, 2009)

Flashback: Remember back in February when the mainstream first heard the term VMT tax, as in "vehicle miles traveled" tax? It was when Transportation Secretary
Ray LaHood proclaimed that, "We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled," and tax people on that. Of course, the obvious aspect that would be pointed out to LaHood and Company—which just about no one in the mainstream media did--is to ask the question: "And exactly HOW do you expect to know how many miles people are driving?"

Obviously, a VMT tax would require a recording device of some kind in all vehicles, or in the very least, an odometer-czar to whom we'd take our cars and register our mileage with. "Odometers, pleeeazze." It can be assumed that tracking devices would be the method of choice. But, hey, Obama came in and saved the day on February 20, we he decided the VMT would be "nixed," and so, nobody worry about it. In fact, the exact quote from
White House Press Sec Gibbs was, "It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration" to do the VMT idea. Okay? So, nobody worry about it anymore.

Yeah, right--if only. LaHood, a Republican (as if there's a difference), was chosen by Barack Obama for the position of Transportation Secretary. And yet, within weeks of the start of the new administration, this very pick is apparently espousing a policy that the White House says “is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration.” Could it be that LaHood is testing the waters on behalf of the administration—perhaps at the behest of the administration—to gauge the public sentiment on the idea of tracing the very movements of the people through the use of mileage tracking devices? If so, the reaction was not exactly positive. Therefore, Gibbs was quick to assure the frantic public that the unpopular vehicle miles travelled tax "is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration." And we should believe Gibbs, right?

Sure. And then we should read this article: "
US Officials very interested in VMT/road use charges--ITSA people"

I accidentally found this article, which single-handedly sparked this entire post—while simply trying to figure out the cash toll price for a five-axle truck on Verranzo Narrows Bridge. Luck, you know. And no one is talking about it, apparently, except for all the Obama officials talking about it at the conference, including the Chief Technology Officer in the White House! But check it out—it’s a 180 degree pivot from Obama's "policy." From the article, here's the real guts:

"Attendees at the ITS America annual conference at National Harbor Maryland say they are very encouraged by Obama administration officials' interest in road pricing and other ITS technologies. Ken Philmus, ITSA board member and a toll industry veteran now with ACS (Affiliated Computer Services), says US officials have been attending the conference and inviting ITS people in large numbers. He says a speech to the conference by Aneesh Chopra, 38, who has the title of Chief Technology Officer in the White House, was "electrifying" and a great encouragement.”

Philmus says the major programs being discussed in which technology is key are (1) HOT lanes and (2) road use charges/VMT tax. HOT lanes initiatives he says in the metro areas of Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles are so bold in scope they will add enormously to regional mobility and to the market for electronic toll and ITS technology in the quite near term. More general road pricing/VMT technology he says is somewhat more uncertain near term, but he's encouraged after what he calls a "knee jerk" reaction early on from the White House against Secretary LaHood's positive words.”

North America's largest electronic toll systems supplier Mark IV was heard on Capitol Hill this week, with chief technology officer Richard Turnock telling a meeting with the House Transportation Committee that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fees and closely related variable road use charges (RUCs) can be built on existing and new "active" transponder-reader technology."

"Active-technology transponders," he said "can be easily integrated with the vehicle and other on-board technologies such as the GPS needed for VMT calculations through wired or wireless connections such as Bluetooth(™)."

"Here is the description of how they envisage a dual frequency IAG-based tolling/VMT/RUC system would work: The JANUS VMT system can use GPS technology to identify vehicle locations and user fees based on local taxes, time of day, traffic congestion and other zone-specific rules. Onboard transponders communicate directly with motorists as they enter new zones, including premium rate zones and offload VMT data through low-cost JANUS roadside hotspots at traffic signals, toll plazas, fuel pumps and other mobile commerce sites where billing is automatic. Even without an additional positioning device, active-technology RFID transponders can respond to beacons placed at strategic locations such as intersection to implement zone, congestion or other variable rate fees."

"The RFID solution (short and medium range wireless reader-transponder systems), he said have "the potential to take the 'technology issue' off the table" so that elected officials can focus on the policy they want to implement rather than fretting about how to do it."

Wait a minute! I thought VMT "is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration"? How things change in 4 months. For not being interested, the administration sure is interested. And sending the White House Chief Technology Officer? Looks like more now-classic Obama doublespeak: VMT is hardly "not the policy" of this administration. The apparent bounty of US officials at this trade conference is very interesting in itself. So here's a little more that I learned about this ITSA group and this tech conference and whatnot.

ITSA is short for
Intelligent Transportation Society of America. The general term for the industry, intelligent transportation systems, is also shortened to ITS, but the above article is referring to last week's annual conference for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. As a "society," ITSA represents the agenda of its more than 400 member ITS-industry companies and transportation-related organizations, and is itself made up of many of those players.

According to their site, ITSA just announced
new members to their board, including Michael Huerta as the new chairman of the board, whom they identify as the president of MPH Consulting, LLC. While the name seems transportation related, it appears that MPH Consulting is simply a website building company. It is, therefore, not Huerta's current involvement as president of MPH that makes me mention him. Oh no, its his former role as the executive vice president of ACS Transportation Solutions, a division of ACS as in Affiliated Computer Services (the same ACS mentioned in article as the employer of another board member, Ken Philmus). From ACS Transportation Solutions' homepage (link above):

"ACS helps transportation agencies address such challenges with revenue collection and regulation compliance services worldwide. Rather than relying solely on technology, ACS can help governments with insufficient funds or resources find ways to apply new business models and new business processes to meet their challenges. From fare collection to toll solutions, from back-office processing to infrastructure installation, ACS provides systems and services that help governments solve their intractable transportation problems."

Anyone in Chicago knows ACS: they were last year awarded a $7 million contract to equip street sweepers with camera systems to log illegally parked cars. They were awarded this contract because of their advanced "Mobile License Plate Recognition technology," which is also what they use in toll enforcement. Truck drivers as well know ACS for a few reasons: for one, ACS "administers the
PrePass line of intelligent transportation solutions on behalf of HELP, Inc," according to the PrePass site. ACS is also behind TripPak, which is a word every truck driver knows because that is the express envelope system we use to send in our signed bills of lading, a system which they are also now offering as electronic BOL submission. And finally, ACS operates the Open-Road Tolling systems that many places (like Chicago) have installed or are installing that allows tolling without even slowing down. (Just a side-note, ACS also does Healthcare solutions. Isn't that interesting. Perhaps their relationship with the government is just beginning.)

Back to the ITSA board. Incidentally, the CEO of aforementioned HELP, Inc (PrePass) is there as well. Also on the board is:

John Inglish, general manager and CEO of the Utah Transit Authority;
Jill Ingrassia, managing director, government relations & traffic safety advocacy at the American Automobile Association (AAA);
Bill Russell, president and CEO of Eberle Design, Inc (makers of signal lights, sensors, and traffic devices);
Gerry M. Mooney, general manager, global government and education at IBM;
Keith Puls, vice president of sales at Verizon Business;
Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation;
Abbas Mohaddes, president and CEO of Iteris, Inc.

Iteris are the wonderful people who bring us red-light cameras (among others). And with the American Automobile Association's managing director of government relations & traffic safety advocacy on the board, would it surprise you to hear that the
president and CEO of AAA came out in support of LaHood's VMT plan? And having NYDOT in there--c'mon, in NY, they want to tax parking a car!

So there you have it. VMT is hardly dead. "Is not and will not be the policy of the Obama Administration"? Sure. And speaking of "sure," I wanted to integrate this into to TexasSure. Bad segue, what bear with me: I'm in Houston right now, and on the way in, I saw a billboard with a picture of cars rushing by and the words "Not insured? You'll be discovered. TexasSure: Vehicle Insurance Verification." You can check this out at their own site, It is just as it sounds.

As part of a new law, the
Texas Financial Responsibility Verification Program, Texas awarded a contract to HDI Solutions to form a central database for all insurance records, vehicle registrations, and VIN's, and make this available to the police officers' in-cab computers. Insurance companies are required to report daily their insurance information. The officers can verify whether or not the vehicle matches the database records by simply entering the license plate number. (Notice, I say "matches the database," and not "whether or not they have insurance and the database is accurate"!)

The fine for failing to have insurance in Texas is $250-$300 for the first offense, and up to $1000 for repeat offenses. The TexasSure website claims that this is only done as part of a routine traffic stop. Yet this same site makes it very clear that simply entering the plate number will offer up the information to the officer. This is a very interesting, because it appears that officers can create their own probable cause now--assuming that not having insurance is a primary violation, and therefore something for which officers can pull a driver over. Considering that the federal government has got all these States to bow down to an improperly-adjusted seat belt as "primary violation," it might be.

Expect to see the same license plate reading technology in many other States soon, especially if the insurance industry can effectively lobby Congress to withhold federal funding for non-cooperative States in the same fashion as it did with the “federal-but-not-federal” mandatory seat belt laws, and unless people WAKE UP.

Given the already well-established tendencies of the Obama administration towards “policy” reversals (wire-tapping; rendition; tax increases; Iran), doublespeak (Guantanamo Bay; TARP; American Recovery Act; anything having to do with the Federal Reserve), and outright lies (not ending the wars; not posting legislation; not stopping signing statements), no one at all should believe the adminstration’s claim that the VMT tax is dead. Revenue and control--what government would pass that up?