"Big Brother knows where you've been."
January 29, 2008
New Jersey Star-Ledger
Do you have an E-ZPass transponder in your car?
Have you been driving along Route 24 not far from the Short Hills Mall?
Big Brother knows where you've been.
I found that out after an alert reader e-mailed me about something that looked out of place. It seems that he was driving east along Route 24 toward the Short Hills Mall, the reader spied an E-ZPass scanner attached to a sign over the roadway.
Route 24 is not a toll road. So why would there be a scanner on it?
Is the FBI watching you? The CIA?
No, it's worse. Far worse. It's the DOT.
I found that out after I put in a call to Erin Phalon, who handles media relations for the state Department of Transportation. At first Phalon was as surprised as I was about the presence of scanners on free roads. But after some research she got back to me.
"This isn't some kind of surveillance," Phalon said.
It turns out the scanner my reader had seen, and others like it on other roads, do indeed read E-ZPass transponders. But they do so only for the purpose of determining traffic volume. By measuring the speed at which a typical car travels from Point A to Point B, the scanners can give a good idea of traffic congestion. And that in turn permits the state to post up-to-the-minute alerts on its Web site, www.njcommuter.com.
So that's nice.
But what bothers me is the idea of such technology being controlled from Trenton. Imagine some higher-up at DOT pondering this information at budget time. The data tell him that millions of cars are streaming past his scanners every day. If only he could collect just 50 cents a car ... 75 cents ... a dollar.
Now imagine that guy having a cup of coffee with Jon Corzine. Yikes!
Ultimately, there's only one thing stopping the political class from adding new tolls all over the state: Not everyone has E-ZPass. If you wanted to collect tolls on Route 24 -- or on 440 in Middlesex County as Corzine has proposed -- you'd have to erect the same sort of toll barrier that was erected on the Garden State Parkway half a century ago. The expense would be enormous, as would the traffic jams.
But suppose the government had a way to keep track of every mile that you drive. That's not just some Orwellian fantasy. It's already been tried in Oregon. A group called the Oregon Road User Fee Task Force has spent the past two years trying to figure out a way to bill every driver for every mile on every road.
The task force got a number of drivers to volunteer to have their vehicles fitted with GPS devices that would measure the mileage they drove. When they went to buy gas, they would not pay the gas tax. Instead they would pay a fee per mile traveled. That fee was calculated to be roughly the same as Oregon's gas tax, which is 24 cents per gallon.
Sounds nutty to me. Why not just pay the gas tax in the first place and dispense with the GPS device, the computers and all the other stuff?
I discussed this with John Charles, who served on the task force. He is with the Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank. Like many libertarians, Charles is a wonderful, idealistic fellow.
Also like most libertarians, he's off his rocker. This guy actually likes tolls.
Many libertarians do, for some reason I've never been able to grasp. If you believe in freedom, why not believe in free roads? This should be especially true for Charles. He grew up in Jersey, home to some of the worst-managed toll roads in the country.
Hope springs eternal, though. Charles described all sorts of plans for special high-speed lanes with congestion pricing that could whisk toll-payers past bottlenecks. It sounded nice. But it didn't sound like Jersey, where the governor wants to use tolls to whisk the bureaucracy past budget bottlenecks.
As for that Oregon experiment, it didn't work out that well.
"The approach has a number of problems politically and otherwise," Charles told me. "People intuitively don't like the idea of paying a toll through every mile. They don't understand how GPS works."
They think they're being spied on. That's natural enough. A lot of people refuse to enroll in E-ZPass for that same reason. They don't like the government knowing where they're going.
Thank God for these characters. Though I myself have E-ZPass, I am eternally grateful to all those drivers who pay cash.
They're all that stand between me and a toll system that begins to charge me the minute I back out of the driveway.
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