EDITORIAL: What 'savings,' PennDOT?

York Dispatch

The state Department of Transportation wants to equip all police departments with cruiser-mounted cameras that scan license plates to detect expired registrations and insurance.

The state Department of Transportation is working to reallocate funds it would save from the elimination of registration stickers into a grant program for Automated License Plate Reader technology.

It’s an incredibly expensive proposition.

Each automated license plate reader costs $18,000. Multiply that times the number of police vehicles on Pennsylvania’s roads, and you get an idea of the cost of the grant program PennDOT is proposing.

PennDOT: license plate readers in, registration stickers out

But that’s OK, according to the department and agreeable lawmakers, because the program would be funded by savings from the elimination of registration stickers, which is scheduled to begin in 2017.

Hold on, though.

Exactly what savings is the department talking about?

The elimination of vehicle registration stickers was part of Pennsylvania's 2013 Transportation Act, the shamefully long-delayed fix to our neglected roads, bridges and mass transit systems.

The act's $2.3 billion annual price tag was covered in part by a gas tax hike of about 28 cents per gallon, phased in over five years, as well as vehicle registration and drivers license fee increases. It also added a surcharge to some moving violation traffic tickets and increases the fine for failing to obey a traffic control device by $125.

Not only was eliminating the aggravation of acquiring the little decals a nod to the motorists who would be footing the bill for the act, it was also expected to free up approximately $3.1 million in 2017,  PennDOT estimated at the time.

That’s the amount the department would have spent on producing and mailing the stickers.

We who are being asked to pay so much more never saw that as a savings.

Crazy us, we thought that money would be used to repair bridges that can no longer bear the weight of heavy vehicles or to resurface roads that are more potholes than asphalt.

The proposal to fund license plate cameras for any department that wants them seems to be a result of pressure from police officials opposed to eliminating the stickers. Last summer, the House even approved a bill to repeal that portion of the transportation act; it’s now awaiting action in the Senate.

Law enforcement officials claim eliminating the decals will make their jobs more difficult. They won't be able to, with a simple glance, see if vehicles have current registration and would have to instead run license plate numbers through a computer database for confirmation.

Yet other states already have eliminated license plate stickers and none have reported any law enforcement problems as a result, according to a 2011 study by Penn State's Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute.

We don’t see it as a problem, certainly not one that warrants the high cost – to both our wallets and our privacy — of publicly funded automated license plate readers.

The technology has attracted the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which notes, “the information captured by the readers – including the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of every scan — is being collected and sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems.

“As a result,” the ACLU says, “enormous databases of innocent motorists’ location information are growing rapidly. This information is often retained for years or even indefinitely, with few or no restrictions to protect privacy rights.”

No thanks, PennDOT.

The department and lawmakers should stick with the plan that was sold to Pennsylvania residents three years ago, and put those “savings” to work fixing our crumbling transportation infrastructure.