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MAPPS Broad View: What Is the 'Gas Tax' for Geospatial Programs?

August 31, 2011
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At the 2011 Esri International User Conference in July, the Russian Federal Service for State Registration, Cadastre and Mapping was presented an award for building a national cadastral layer. University of South Carolina geography professor emeritus David Cowen, past chairman of the Mapping Sciences Committee of the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences and current chairman of the U.S. National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC), estimates that American taxpayers have financed more than $1 billion in direct (e.g., U.S. aid) and indirect (e.g., World Bank) cadastral initiatives worldwide. Other major global competitors, such as India and China, are developing national cadastres.

The National Spatial Data Infra-structure (NSDI), which originated in the Clinton administration in 1994 and continued under Presidents Bush and Obama, would provide the foundation for national mapping. It is built on seven framework layers--geodetic control, cadastral, orthoimagery, elevation, hydrography, administrative units, and transportation.

However, efforts to build the NSDI have fallen short. The Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress reported “efforts which began over 15 years ago and continue today are not sufficiently national in scope, planning, coordination, sharing, or implementation, despite the existence of the FGDC, NSGIC, or other organizations such as MAPPS or COGO that are forums for organizations concerned with national geospatial issues.”

Not only does the U.S. not have current, complete, accurate or accessible NSDI framework layers, but the federal government does not even maintain information on progress toward meeting these metrics.

The Coalition of Geospatial Organizations (COGO) an umbrella group of the major national geospatial-related trade associations, foundations and professional societies, has begun developing an NSDI Report Card. Modeled after the successful American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) infrastructure report card, the COGO effort is intended to raise public and policymaker awareness of the need for the NSDI through an evaluation of the current status of national mapping in the United States. Still lacking, however, is the funding to create the NSDI.

MAPPS, the only national association exclusively comprised of private geospatial firms, has begun developing a legislative proposal for Congress to establish a dedicated source of funding for geospatial data and activities, financed by a “user fee” put into a “revolving fund.” The concept has been discussed at MAPPS meetings for more than a year and was the subject of a special “town hall” session at the association’s annual conference in July.

The idea is not a new one. Just as a gas tax finances highway construction, operation and maintenance, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund finances dredging and related barge and shipping support services, and Dingell-Johnson (and Breaux-Wallop) Funds collect user fees from anglers and sport fishermen to support fisheries, conservation and related programs, a user fee on a location-based transaction could fund the NSDI. In fact, the Government Accountability Office has reported the federal government has 224 federal trust funds and 247 special funds. Some states have already begun to fund geographic information activities through a user fee and/or revolving fund, including Illinois and Wisconsin, which assess recordation fees; Virginia, which has an E911 phone fee; and Pennsylvania; which has a Uniform Parcel Identifier (UPI) fee.

What geospatial-related transactions would be subject to the fee and how monies collected in the revolving fund would be spent are among the issues to be worked out. A fee on any consumer purchase of an instrument, device or equipment that provides a geographic location, or a positioning-enabled product, may be one idea. The fee would create a dedicated revenue stream to the government for geospatial data investments. It would be a true “user pays” system, with the revenue from the fee paid by users of positioning data reinvested in better place-based or geospatial data.

According to a recent research report published by IE Market Research (IEMR), the global market for GPS navigation and location-based services will increase to $13.4 billion in 2014, a compound annual growth rate of 51.3 percent. In the U.S. and Canada, the GPS navigation and location-based market will increase to more than $4.3 billion. The U.S. and Canada will represent nearly one-third (32.4 percent) of the world market share for GPS navigation and location-based services spending over the next five years. The U.S. will still be one of the largest single markets for location-based services in the world, with a compound annual growth rate of 37.5 percent forecasted over the next five years. By the end of 2011, more than 75 percent of devices shipped in mature markets will include a GPS, reports Gartner Inc., calling “enhanced location awareness” one of 10 mobile technologies that will evolve significantly through 2011. Currently, some 234 million Americans ages 13 and older use mobile devices, reports comScore Inc. Just a $1-per-device fee would provide significant annual revenues for the NSDI.

The NSDI is effectively a “digital infrastructure.” The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation indicates that for every $1 billion in funds spent on such infrastructure, more than 30,000 jobs are created. While there is no study on the return on investment of NSDI in the United States, a report by the Economic Studies and Strategies Unit of Price Waterhouse on the economic benefits arising from the acquisition and maintenance of the nation’s land and geographic information has estimated that for the period 1989–94, approximately $1 billion was spent in Australia on investment in geographic data. This investment produced benefits within the economy in the order of $4.5 billion. The study also found that this investment saved users approximately $5 billion.

It is clear that going hat in hand to Congress or the state legislature seeking funds for geospatial programs is not a successful or sustainable effort. Proposals such as the NSDI, “imagery for the nation,” and others have never gotten off the ground due to a lack of specific authorization, appropriation or dedicated funding source. And the geospatial community’s experience with trying to get a stimulus bill provision demonstrates the futility of using the appropriations process to secure adequate funding for national mapping initiatives.

Should the geospatial community engage in an effort to establish a user fee and revolving fund? MAPPS has initiated a working group to study and develop the idea, as well as alternatives. COGO has unanimously voted to participate in the effort. Interested individuals, firms and organizations can go to www.mapps.org to get involved.

The COGO website is www.cogo.pro.

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