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Tales From the Dark Side of Traffic Reform

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page G02

This column is based on notes from the Department of Unintended Consequences (DUC), my personal repository of information culled from technical journals and other literature seldom seen or read by the general public.

Two primary sources include Traffic Technology International magazine and its annual supplement, Tolltrans, both published by UK & International Press in Great Britain. Together, the magazines track global developments in traffic management, monitoring, toll collection and vehicle identification technology. They also follow developments in technology for traffic violations detection and penalty processing, the latter usually involving the automated collection of fines.

Other DUC entries come from government agencies, here and abroad, that are responsible for traffic safety and the general upkeep of highways and byways. And still more bits are pulled from technical papers presented at annual meetings, such as those convened by the Washington-based International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, frequently ignored by the media.

There is little sexy in the reading of such epistles, which often are written in technical jargon laden with enough acronyms (e.g., HOT, for High Occupancy Toll lane; 5YTP, Five Year Transport Plan; and HDRC, for High Dynamic Range Camera) to give alphabet soup a bad name.

Still, the reading usually is interesting. It is more revealing of trends than it is of conspiracies or other skulduggery. But contained therein is an alarming laundry list of good intentions gone awry. These I note and dutifully file with DUC. Here are three examples:

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Automobile manufacturers are making more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, including those with advanced internal combustion engines, gasoline/electric hybrid drive systems and, in some cases, diesel/electric engine/motor combinations. The industry globally is involved in a multibillion-dollar drive toward hydrogen-powered vehicles. That all bodes well for fossil fuel conservation, reduced dependency on oil from political unstable regions, and cleaner air worldwide.

But in the United States, it's bad news for states and localities that collect hundreds of millions of dollars in gasoline and other fossil fuel taxes, according to the 2004 edition of Tolltrans. It seems that as vehicle fuel economy increases, partly with the assistance of federal and state incentives in the form of tax breaks for fuel-sipping hybrid vehicles, the money generated by taxes on fossil fuels is decreasing. Higher gasoline pump prices also are influencing the trend by pushing consumers out of gas-guzzlers into less-thirsty cars and trucks.

Making matters worse is that the shrinkage in fossil fuel tax funds comes when highway construction and maintenance costs, traditionally supported by gas pump taxes, are rising astronomically. That means many highway budgets are squeezed, Tolltrans says.

As a result, Oregon and California are studying ways to shift the highway tax burden away from fossil fuel levies to distance-based charges, otherwise known as road-use taxes. One possible way of doing that involves outfitting cars and trucks with electronic devices that can be monitored by a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS), or a series of such satellites, covering road travel within a given state's boundaries. The information, ultimately downloaded to a taxing agency, would be used to assess the road-use tax based on actual vehicle miles driven within the state in a specific period.

Whether that scheme, or any other, will be implemented remains to be seen. But it raises the not-so-charming prospect of the government giving fuel-efficient motorists tax breaks with one hand and taking them away, while simultaneously threatening drivers' privacy, with the other.

EZPass, Easy Identity Theft. The EZPass system, which actually got its start in France in the 1990s in a bid to reduce traffic congestion at tollbooths, is continuing to grow worldwide. The transponder technology used to read the EZPass window stickers and hand-held flash cards is getting more sophisticated, too. The passes can be read at greater distances from the booths, for example. Also increasing in sophistication are the passes themselves, which nowadays contain lots of personal information that can be misused if a pass falls into miscreant hands, a possibility enhanced by the availability of equally sophisticated interloping scanner devices.

Tollway authorities globally are becoming aware of the possible threat to the security of personal information, according to Tolltrans and Traffic Technology International. The authorities are studying ways to combat the looming menace.

Corporate Traffic Enforcement System. Are traffic police and courts becoming things of the past? Will future motorists "caught" misbehaving by cameras and other electronic monitoring devices have to deal with corporate-sponsored VPCs (violations processing centers) and VPS (violations processing system) operations instead of courts and government motor vehicle administration offices? Will the new cops on the block be devices installed, maintained and administered (in terms of fine assessment and collection) by companies such as Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc. and American Traffic Solutions Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz.?

According to much of the traffic safety literature published in technical journals and circulated in "white papers" at technical meetings of highway safety organizations, private companies increasingly are cashing in on the putative campaign to make our roads safer. The private companies have an edge. They can develop, distribute, install and maintain traffic-monitoring technology better and more quickly than government agencies can. Thus, they get hired -- some with contracts requiring upfront signing bonuses in addition to a percentage of fines generated, and others only with an agreement to derive service fees from collected fines.

Questions: What happens if the companies succeed in their stated endeavor to reduce dangerous road rowdiness? If earnings from collected fines decrease drastically, will they abandon the business? What about governments using and sharing the proceeds of the corporations' fine-generating services? If money from those fines dries up, will the governments turn to another revenue source, perhaps an increased road-use tax?

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