House bans license plate readers: The road to toll collection threatens liberty

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House bans license plate readers: The road to toll collection threatens liberty
By Terri Hall
June 16, 2014

The U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment barring any federal funds from being used to buy equipment or store data collected from license plate readers. Congress had previously banned any federal funding of red light cameras, but Rep. John Fleming (R - Louisiana) decided to expand the ban to include automatic license plate reader cameras, too.

He cited the threat to personal liberties, especially in light of the National Security Agency’s collection of phone data on innocent Americans. License plate readers can collect data that tracks personal movements, and they can record intimate details such as where one worships or receives counseling, etc. Fleming and the majority of his colleagues agreed, 255 to 172, that the risks to personal privacy and freedom do not outweigh any benefits.

The ban was attached as an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations bill. The bill has not been taken up by the U.S. Senate, and likely won’t be passed as a standalone bill, but rather lumped into an omnibus spending bill at the end of the year.

Concern over toll revenues

One House member, Rep. Tom Latham (R- Iowa), objected saying the ban would jeopardize toll revenues since many toll roads use license plate readers to bill motorists. Why would toll collections interest the federal government? Because now federal taxpayers have become one of the biggest lenders to toll projects through federal TIFIA loans.

Taxpayer advocates and conservative policy makers have long objected to the TIFIA loan program precisely because taxpayers shouldn’t be a bank doling out loans for risky toll road schemes.

Previously, toll revenue bonds funded toll roads and the private bond investors took the hit for any losses if the traffic didn’t show up. TIFIA loans not only put taxpayers on the hook for the losses, they require motorists to pay back their own money with interest (through tolls).

When a failed toll road goes bankrupt due, often due to inflated traffic projections like the South Bay Expressway in San Diego, CA, the government doesn’t want to let the road fail - taxpayers have to bail it out, take an outright loss, or restructure the debt at a loss. None of these scenarios is a good deal for taxpayers.

So big government has a vested interest in getting its money back. This is how government steals our freedom - it puts our money on the line and then it can dictate terms and restrict our liberty based on its own self-interest, not the best interests of the traveling public. What’s so offensive about this argument is that the same federal government picks and chooses which loans it really wants repaid - it didn’t seem to care in the case of Solyndra when it lost nearly $1 billion.

Toll violations bring big penalties

The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) recently deployed license plate reader cameras on its tollways in order to catch what it deems ‘toll violators.’ It’s not hard to be labeled a ‘habitual’ toll violator. If your payment card (whether credit or debit) expires and you forget to give the NTTA the new card number in time, it would only take one monthly billing cycle to be deemed a ‘habitual’ toll violator and have the Texas Department of Public Safety deployed to stop you and impound your vehicle.

The NTTA can also block your car registration if you fail to pay-up. A measly $2.00 toll can rack-up $2,000 in fines in the Lone Star State. So paying-up isn’t easy to do when the punishment doesn’t fit the ‘crime.’

Expect a showdown over this amendment before it’s all said and done. Toll roads and collections devices are the new Orwellian danger to personal freedom and privacy. There’s seemingly no limit to what the government can do with such travel information on its citizens nor a limit on the punishment it can impose using license plate readers.

Link to article here.

US House Approves Ban On Federal Traffic Camera Funding
License plate readers and photo enforcement cameras will not receive federal funding under House-passed legislation.
June 16, 2014

The US House of Representatives voted 255 to 172 last Tuesday in favor of a ban on federal funding of red light cameras, speed cameras and automated license plate readers (ALPR or ANPR). Representative John Fleming (R-Louisiana) proposed the measure as an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill which has yet to be taken up by the Senate.

"None of the funds made available by this act may be used to acquire a camera for the purpose of collecting or storing vehicle license plate numbers," the House-passed language states.

In recent years, the federal government has been offering millions of dollars in grants to towns small and large, encouraging police agencies to install license plate reading cameras. Federal agencies a decade ago provided $70,000 to $100,000 in seed money to several cities to promote red light camera, including Beaverton, Oregon; Decatur, Georgia; Howard County, Maryland; Lakewood, Washington; and Washington, DC. These programs turned the seed money into millions in profit, according to an audit by the Government Accounting Office (view report).

Another GAO report found the federal government spent $51 million on photo ticketing, facial recognition and related surveillance camera technologies through the year 2001 (view report). By 2012, Congress decided to put a stop to it and specifically banned federal funding for red light cameras. Fleming decided to increase the scope of the ban in light of how the National Security Agency has been spying on Americans who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

"Just like phone metadata, this geo-location data with time stamps can be used to reconstruct intimate details of our lives, who we visit, where we worship, from whom we seek counseling, and how we might legally and legitimately protest the actions of our own government," Fleming explained. "This language expands upon the prohibitions already adopted under previous MAP-21 reauthorizations preventing federal funds from being used to purchase cameras for purposes of traffic law enforcement. Despite this prohibition, transportation grants can still currently be used to purchase cameras that collect and store license plate data even when no crime has been committed."

Representative Tom Latham (R-Iowa) opposed the language on the grounds that it would interfere with revenue raising operations.

"The prohibition could undermine revenue collection systems on several large toll-funded routes who take pictures of a license plate -- and that is how they charge -- and put federal loans at risk of default not having that means of collecting those revenues," Latham said.

For the ban to become law, the language must be passed in the Senate and signed by the president. In the past several years, however, the transportation language has not been adopted as a free-standing measure. Instead, the language will most likely be rolled into an end-of-year "omnibus" spending bill. The ban applies to funding that comes through the Department of Transportation and lasts through the appropriations cycle until renewed.