Traditionally, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation – more commonly referred to as PennDOT – has relied upon gasoline-based tax revenue as a method of funding state transportation initiatives. However, as vehicles become more fuel efficient, electric cars become more available and affordable, and fewer people commute daily as jobs increasingly transition to being done remotely, PennDOT has seen a steady decrease in gas tax revenues.
“To meet the needs of our aging infrastructure, Pennsylvania needs to establish a funding stream that will inject an additional $5 billion per-year into our transportation system,” said PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian.
Four years ago, PennDOT created the Regional Innovations Challenge, a contest open to Pennsylvania high school students in which teams present proposals aimed to solve the real-world goal of creating new revenue sources to complement the existing gas taxes, tolls, and mileage-based fees. Teams initially compete within a designated region, and then selected regional winners advance to the state competition.
For the first time since its formation, a Hill School foursome entered the competition. They set a high standard for future Hill teams that participate in the event. The team, dubbed “The Blues,” consisting of leader Eddie Proffitt ’22, Andres Arevalo ’22, Rohan Dondeti ’21, JuanBer Hinostroza ’21, and faculty adviser Athey Family Master of History Chris Chirieleison ’85 P’18 ’20 ’21 were selected as District Six winners for their idea, “PA Road Rewards.” This idea would utilize an app and website where users sign-up for a membership subscription to gain access to games testing their transportation safety knowledge, in return for rewards, while also allowing sponsored advertisement within the app to help generate funding.
According to Proffitt, the motivation to enter the competition came from his father, who is a teacher at Lancaster Country Day School and had been an adviser to group of L.C.D.S. students who previously participated in the competition. He encouraged Proffitt, who is a new fifth form student this year, to try it with a group of Hill students. Proffitt contacted Arevalo, who affirmed his interest and then suggested that Dondeti and Hinostroza might also be interested in the competition.
All four students are members of Hill’s boys’ squash team, a connection they credit with helping them work together well.
“The four of us are already used to working together as a team, and we all have similar goals, which made it easier to arrive upon efficient and innovative ideas,” Dondeti said in an interview with Arevalo for a Hill News article.
While the group initially had a handful of ideas, they quickly settled on the Road Rewards plan.
“We believe that PennDOT can take advantage of the ever-expanding market of online advertisement and apps to provide a new revenue source and reach Pennsylvanians,” Hinostroza said.
A challenge unique to COVID-19 times tasked the group with both preparing for the competition and presenting virtually. Proffitt, Dondeti, and Arevalo were on campus for the Winter Low Residency Program, but Hinostroza remained in his home country, Ecuador.
“Initially we were unfamiliar with Microsoft Teams, which we knew was going to be a challenge we’d have to overcome,” Proffitt explained. “We made sure to rehearse our presentation over-and-over again and switched all of our meetings to Teams to gain familiarity with the platform. This had us prepared for our presentation.”
Typically, the state competition would be held in Harrisburg, but this year it also will be held virtually in April. The winning team will receive a cash prize, certificates, and an engraved trophy.