Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"This is more than Orwell ever imagined."

TxDOT knows where you went

It hired a firm to film plates, send surveys — a move some call sneaky


Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Did you drive on Interstate 35 in early September? Where were you going, and why? How many people were in the car with you? And by the way, how many people live in your house?

The Texas Department of Transportation wants to know, and a company it hired may have videotaped your license plate, then sent you a survey to find out.

The survey is being done in the name of sound transportation planning. Officials say the method has been used before in Texas and elsewhere. But it has some feeling uncomfortable, and others crying, "Big Brother."

Alliance Transportation Group Inc., under a $781,588.53 contract with the state, mailed about 150,000 surveys to homes containing an explanation startling to some: "You are being asked to participate in these efforts because the license plate of a vehicle registered in (your) name was randomly recorded" during a highway trip.

"It almost feels sneaky," said Alison Unger, an Austin communications professional who got the survey after traveling to San Antonio for Rosh Hashana.

Unger has no ill will toward TxDOT but is concerned about whether her personal information will be protected. She said she likely wouldn't answer the survey.

Some were outraged about the survey after being videotaped by cameras tucked into orange barrels at 21 locations outside metro areas on I-35 and nearby highways from north of Laredo, through the San Antonio area to north of Dallas, some 450 miles.

Similar surveys are expected next year in the Houston, Galveston, Beaumont and Port Arthur areas, although with changes incorporated to reflect concerns expressed by drivers.

"This is Big Brother-ish," said Sal Costello, a fierce critic of TxDOT who founded a Web site — — to fight the way toll roads were planned by the agency. "It is an invasion of privacy."

Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said, "It's one thing to study traffic patterns, but to ask all this personal information of people makes you wonder why they are doing it. ... This is more than Orwell ever imagined."

TxDOT spokeswoman Gaby Garcia said the information won't be shared or sold and will be disposed of in a secure fashion. This is the first time the state has conducted a comprehensive transportation survey on the entire I-35 corridor, and the information is vital to planning, she said.

"With the heavy traffic demand already on I-35, one of the state's busiest interstate corridors, this survey will help us better forecast future demand and needed improvements," Garcia said.

She said the survey is voluntary and that people don't have to participate or answer all the questions. Since the survey was mailed about three weeks ago after the Sept. 12-13 license-plate videotaping, about 3,000 people have responded, she said.

About 200 have called a toll-free number included with the survey, with most asking about its purpose and "a few callers unhappy that they received a survey," she said.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican who has worked to stem TxDOT's drive toward privately run toll roads, said something else caught her eye.

"With TxDOT continuing to spill forth that they have no money to build highways, I find it very interesting they have a lot of money to do mailings to 150,000 people and ad campaigns of $8 (million) and $9 million," she said.

Civil engineering professor Chandra Bhat, of the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Transportation Research, said such surveys have been used in many states.

The downside with a survey based on videotaping license plates, Bhat said, is that the data quality may not be as good and there can be a negative public perception: "Uncle Sam sneaking up, essentially."

Garcia said the agency plans to let drivers know of the survey beforehand the next time: "It was by no means meant to be sneaky," Garcia said. "Lesson learned."

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