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

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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.

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