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April 19, 2014

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Financial partners hit brakes on ‘black box’ to track vehicle mileage

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State transportation officials have lost their partners in a search for an alternative to the fuel tax.

Days after the Las Vegas Sun reported the Nevada Transportation Department had developed a prototype device to track vehicles’ mileage and routes, the Washoe County and Southern Nevada regional transportation commissions said they will not fund the second and third phases of the study.

Representatives from the agencies cited the poor economy and limited tax dollars, despite already investing a combined $160,000 in the project.

“We’re not participating in Phase 2 of the study because of the economic climate,” said Allison Blankenship, spokeswoman for the RTC of Southern Nevada. “What we learned from Phase 1 will be valuable if this ends up being a viable long-term solution.”

“This was a valuable step that needed to be done,” said Tom Greco, senior planner for the Washoe RTC. “We, as an agency, need to focus right now on local needs — building roads, funding transit.”

Greco said the Transportation Department had asked each agency to contribute $30,000 to the next phase.

The first phase — researching what other states are doing and creating the prototype — cost about $260,000. The Transportation Department contributed $100,000.

Privacy advocates raised red flags about the pilot program. And the agency has experienced a backlash over the development of the device, which has been referred to informally as a “black box.”

“This is not just about the black box. We don’t even like calling it that,” said Scott Magruder, Transportation Department spokesman. “It’s a mileage-detection device.”

Transportation officials held their first public meeting on the project Tuesday. A change in road building and maintenance funding is necessary, officials say, because as vehicles have become more fuel efficient, the gasoline and diesel taxes haven’t kept pace with infrastructure needs.

A department presentation features pictures of the prototype, developed in partnership with UNLV and UNR, and notes that other states with similar pilot programs have used global positioning systems to report miles, time and location of travel.

The presentation mentions alternatives to the black box, such as drivers self-reporting mileage and officials taking odometer readings.

Although the first phase is set to be completed this year, evaluation of the technology is supposed to last a year. The third phase, a further pilot study, is estimated to take two years.

Magruder said the agency is looking for volunteers.

The Transportation Department doesn’t yet know the costs of the future phases, but Magruder said it hopes federal grant money would be available for future programs.

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