Technology stalls Minnesota's statewide mileage tax idea

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2013 - 7:50 AM
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Sign of things to come: With hundreds of road projects set to begin statewide, officials are urging patience.

Photo: BRUCE BISPING • bbisping@startribune.cvom ,

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 The idea intrigued Kathy Gillen: Pay highway taxes by the mile instead of the gallon.

So the Otsego, Minn., resident signed on for one of the nation’s largest experiments to test how a state might keep track of miles a vehicle is driven.

But the technology wasn’t quite up to the task.

“It counted twice a couple of times, and didn’t count at all a bunch of times,” Gillen recalled.

The recent experiment involving 500 drivers in the region reflects a desire by state officials to find an alternative to the gasoline tax, a highway funding powerhouse that’s likely to diminish as cars become more fuel-efficient.

The results, however, suggest that mileage fees face a long, bumpy road to becoming reality.

The smartphone technology installed in the volunteers’ cars failed in about a third of the trips. Weak GPS signals caused problems. Double-counted miles were a frequent problem — in one case a vehicle was recorded traveling 57 percent farther than its odometer showed it did.

Only one in five drivers were confident that their fees were accurately tallied.

“Participants frequently reported that elements of the process would not be acceptable if this was not a test,” the study concluded.

“I think software guys would have their hands full here for a while,” said Cory Johnson, who managed the test for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). “They have a lot of work to do.”

Facing a looming shortfall in highway funding, the Legislature in 2007 decided to spend up to $5 million on the mileage study. It took 13 months and was completed in February. The House is likely to hold hearings on the findings this spring, said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the Transportation Finance Committee, who favored studying the idea.

Hornstein expressed confidence that the technological hurdles can be overcome. As for this year, “There won’t be a mileage-based user fee in the transportation bill,” he said.

Trial run

Researchers called 15,000 people and randomly chose 500 volunteers. They wanted to study rural and urban driving and chose mostly people who lived in Wright County because it was the rural area with the most people commuting into five metro-area counties.

The state provided smartphones that were supposed to track the cars’ miles and movements. Drivers were given up to $375 for six months of participation and reimbursed for mileage fees they paid. They were charged 3 cents a mile during rush hour and in the metro area, and 1 cent an hour for all other travel.

The fees showed up on monthly invoices sent to drivers based on data recorded via the smartphones. Mileage fees for the study were intended only to replace the current gasoline tax on a vehicle with average fuel efficiency.

“If I were to go downtown for a Wild game, my rate would change as I got progressively closer,” said Jim Lanes, 52, of Silver Creek Township in Wright County.

The legislation creating the study kept participants’ names nonpublic over concerns about the privacy of their driving habits. But several accepted invitations to talk with the Star Tribune.

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