RFID to Monitor Road Usage?

A bill proposed in the U.S. Congress would provide funding for research into the feasibility of taxing individuals based on how much they use roads.
Published: September 14, 2009

I came across an interesting article on a Web site called The Truth About Cars, with the following headline: Uncle Sam Eyes Vehicle Tracking Tax. The story indicates U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) has introduced a bill that would allocate $154 million to research the feasibility of using technology for a per-mile vehicle tax system. The so-called Road User Fee Pilot Project would be administered by the U.S. Treasury Department.

The idea is certainly feasible, but RFID might need to be combined with GPS to provide complete coverage. RFID could certainly work well on highways, where you would need to install interrogators only at the on and off ramps in order to determine how far someone has driven on that road. You could, in fact, utilize the toll-collection systems already installed on many major routes.

But determining how much someone uses local roads would mean putting RFID readers at every intersection. Somehow, I just can’t see small towns across the country installing such systems. As such, GPS might be a more useful technology for determining usage in some areas.

I’ve read some articles by economists who support the idea of governments charging for road usage. The issue is that some companies and individuals use the roads a lot more than others do—so essentially, they’re being subsidized by those who use them less. Fairness would dictate that those businesses not be subsidized by others, but I think the idea of taxing people for how much they drive is not going to fly in the United States. People in this country just love their cars too much.

I do support reducing road congestion by charging people who enter downtown areas during peak hours. Singapore introduced such a scheme when I lived in Asia in the 1980s. It used RFID, and it worked very well. Hong Kong considered a similar scheme, because its downtown area was so choked with cars you could hardly move, but the legislature voted it down. The talk was that some powerful people didn’t want their wives getting monthly statements revealing they took side trips to see their mistresses during the day, but I’m not sure I believe that.

Congestion pricing has worked in London, but when Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed it for New York City (where I work), it was shot down by a variety of interests that didn’t want to have to pay to come into Manhattan. I like the idea of people paying for the use of physical infrastructure, but it’s a tough sell since most don’t think about how much it costs to maintain a country’s infrastructure. That may change as governments seek to find new sources of revenue in the current downturn, but my guess is they’ll do it the old-fashion way: tolls on bridges, tunnels and major throughways. I don’t expect to see Blumenauer’s bill pass, even though the RFID industry sure could use some of that $154 million.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.