BOSTON - A tentative plan to overhaul Massachusetts' transportation system by using GPS chips to charge motorists a quarter-cent for every mile behind the wheel has angered some drivers.
"It's outrageous, it's kind of Orwellian, Big Brotherish," said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, who drafted legislation last week to prohibit the practice. "You'd need a whole new department of cronies just to keep track of it."
But a "Vehicle Miles Traveled" program like the one the governor may unveil this week has already been tested — with positive results — in Oregon.
Governors in Idaho and Rhode Island, as well as the federal government, also are talking about such programs. And in North Carolina, a panel suggested in December the state start charging motorists a quarter-cent for every mile as a substitute for the gas tax.
"The Big Brother issue was identified during the first meeting of the task force that developed our program," said Jim Whitty, who oversees innovation projects for the Oregon Department of Transportation. "Everything we did from that point forward, even though we used electronics, was to eliminate those concerns."
A draft overhaul transport plan prepared for Gov. Deval Patrick says implementing a Vehicle Miles Traveled system to replace the gas tax makes sense. "A user-based system, collected electronically, is a fair way to pay for our transportation needs in the future," it says.
Patrick, who had yet to settle on any of the ideas contained in the draft, told reporters last week, "I like any idea that is faster, cheaper, simpler."
The idea behind the program is simple: As cars become more fuel efficient or powered by electricity, gas tax revenues decline. Yet the cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges is increasing. A state could cover that gap by charging drivers precisely for the mileage their vehicles put on public roads.
"There needs to be a new way of thinking about, `How do we pay for all of this?'" said Richard Dimino, president of A Better City, a business-friendly group that considers transportation issues.
"One of the ways is thinking about the automobile like a utility: When we turn on our automobile and use it, we would be charged like we do when we turn on the lights and we start using electricity."
In Oregon, the state paid volunteers who let the transportation department install GPS receivers in 300 vehicles. The device did not transmit a signal — which would allow real-time tracking of a driver's movements — but instead passively received satellite pings telling the receiver where it was in terms of latitude and longitude coordinates.
The state used those coordinates to determine when the vehicle was driving both within Oregon and outside the state. And it measured the respective distances through a connection with the vehicle's odometer.
When a driver pulled into a predetermined service station, the pump linked electronically with the receiver, downloaded the number of miles driven in Oregon and then charged the driver a fee based on the distance. The gas tax they would have paid was reduced by the amount of the user fee. Drivers continued to be charged gas tax for miles driven outside Oregon.
Under such systems, one of which is already used in London, drivers are charged more for entering a crowded area during rush hour than off-peak periods.
"What the mileage charge does, if it's structured properly, is simply charge for the basic responsibility of people to pay for the amount of wear they put on the state's roads," said Whitty, whose state is still considering the mechanics of broadening the program.