PLANS TO TOLL EXISTING INTERSTATE HIGHWAYS
Historically, states have been prevented from slapping tolls on existing roads, but thanks to a federal pilot program designed to fund interstate improvements through tolls, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has approved plans for three states to do just that. North Carolina is the latest state, which joins Virginia and Missouri, in the pursuit of toll revenue. North Carolina and Virginia want to toll I-95, while Missouri wants to sink its teeth into all 250 miles of I-70 within its borders. Three other states, including Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Arizona, submitted applications but were rejected for various reasons. Pennsylvania lost out because it wanted to divert toll revenue for purposes other than to maintain the toll road.
The North Carolina plan calls for tolling the state’s entire 182-mile stretch of I-95 to help pay for $4.4 billion in improvements to that highway. Plans call for widening the entire length, new bridges and interchanges, and safety upgrades. According to the North Carolina DOT, the state only has the money to finance about 10% of the entire project. “Without putting a toll on I-95, there is really no other way to make these improvements, and these are necessary improvements,” said a DOT spokesperson. That “there is no other way to make these improvements” is the driving theme of the FHWA agenda, and it should make motorists nervous.
By design, the I-95 plan will put the heaviest burden on long-distance truckers, out-of-state drivers and others driving longer distances. Local users will be able to travel shorter distances (around 10 miles or so) without having to pay tolls. Sounds like the locals have been thrown a bone to help discourage opposition. But what’s to prevent the tolls on local drivers from going up once the system is operational? And what about the inevitable lawsuits that will result from the disparate costs charged to different groups of drivers? Toll roads never seem to work as promised. Instead of eliminating safety hazards and congestion, they push them to secondary roadways where they are less likely to be addressed. Almost always, a lack of accountability leads to diversion of funds and other abuses. Electronic tolling sounds good until one considers the potential for increased surveillance and heavy-handed traffic enforcement. And if some lawmakers and special interest groups have their way, it will only get worse.
A proposed amendment to the transportation bill currently in the U.S. Senate would expand the FHWA program to seven more states. Their ultimate goal is to “provide maximum flexibility to the states to toll any portions of both their Interstate systems and non-Interstate freeways,” according to one backer of the amendment from the U.S. Tolling Coalition. Toll road advocates point out that the states are facing severe funding pressures in maintaining and rebuilding their interstates. They say traditional revenue streams, like fuel taxes, are insufficient given the scope of the need. But isn’t adjusting the fuel tax the simplest and most equitable way to address funding shortfalls, provided the revenues go solely toward road projects?
Motorists already pay a staggering $120 billion in user fees annually, two-thirds of which come from fuel taxes. However, more than $26 billion (about 20% of the total) goes to programs not directly related to highway improvements or expansion. Rather than defaulting to conventional wisdom that says tolling is the only solution, policymakers should examine why existing financing models have fallen short (hint: it may be poor fiscal management, wrongheaded priorities and a lack of political will)!
BLACK BOXES FOR ALL MOTORISTS
The U.S. House and Senate negotiators are currently trying to reconcile their two versions of a new surface transportation bill, and black boxes are one of the hot topics of discussion. We all know that the FMCSA has been talking about putting Electronic On-Board Recorders (EOBRs) in trucks, but there is now a provision that could mandate the installation of recording devices in all vehicles beginning in 2015.
Under S1813, also known as MAP-21, the information stored on an event data recorder (black box) could be retrieved under a court order “in the furtherance of a legal proceeding,” by employees of the Department of Transportation in the event of an accident, and by anyone “for the purpose of determining the need for, or facilitating, emergency medical response.” Should this provision make its way into law, black box data would technically be the property of the vehicle owner, except in the cases where a judge or transportation official seeks access.
Just think, without the proper controls, black boxes have the potential to increase surveillance of motorists, enhance automated law enforcement and enable the real-time collection of fees and taxes. Left unchecked, abuse of black box data would be inevitable. Maintaining control of your driving data is critical in combating further infringement on both truckers’ and motorists’ privacy rights.
DNA SAMPLING – THE NEXT THREAT TO PRIVACY
Drivers face all kinds of threats to their privacy, and one area sure to get increasing scrutiny is the collection of DNA samples during traffic stops. A recent example is the case of Troy Thomas, a suspect in a string of burglaries. When Mr. Thomas was stopped under the guise of a DUI checkpoint, he submitted to a Breathalyzer test, which he passed. He was free to go. However, a sample of his DNA from the mouthpiece was submitted for testing, without his knowledge. He was later arrested for burglary. At trial, Thomas moved to have the DNA evidence suppressed because it was seized and tested without a search warrant. The court denied the motion, saying Thomas did not have an expectation of privacy since he “abandoned” the evidence. The court ruled that the sample was “voluntarily” given and subsequent testing was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. So, once again drivers, you must fight for your privacy!