April 28, 2008

Steady Progress On Congestion Pricing, Tolling

Matt Rosenberg

Suppose electricity was free, even at hours of peak usage. Think your power supply would be reliable, then? Exactly. Now apply the same common-sense approach to highway capacity.

Or consider the Environmental Defense Fund's Transportation Director Michael Replogle, who writes in the Washington Post:

Congestion pricing may be controversial to some people, but it's inevitable. Using tolls simply to build more roads is a costly way to end up with even more traffic and pollution....Done right, congestion pricing can boost the efficiency of our existing roads, raise revenue to invest in transit, and reduce pollution that causes asthma, cancer, heart disease, impaired lung development and global warming....In the long run, congestion pricing is the only effective and economically and politically viable solution to the chronic and growing gridlock in our nation's largest cities.

Support for road pricing isn't isolated. At all. A "survey of surveys" published by Johanna Zmud in the scholarly journal Tolling finds broad support for congestion pricing. (See especially the summary chart on p. 33).

Now the place that gave birth to road rage is getting in on the act. The L.A. Times reports the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will turn carpool lanes on the 10 and 210 freeways in the San Gabriel Valley into electronically-tolled High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes by year-end 2010, with tolls varying according to time of day and traffic levels. This is one example of so-called "congestion pricing," also known as variable tolling, or time-variable tolling.

LA's commitment comes in return for $200 million-plus from the U.S. Department of Transportation for 60 high-capacity buses and improvements to light rail.

It's part of the department's Urban Partnerships Program to encourage expanded transit and "congestion pricing," together.

NYC's Loss Is LA's Gain

LA's access to the federal funds came after the New York General Assembly sank a cordon pricing proposal from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

That would have garnered an Urban Partnerships grant of more than $300 million.

More from The Times:

"This is a great opportunity to think outside the box and to try something that has been tested around the world and has worked," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (ed.-pictured at right), a member of the MTA board.

"Part of the reason that Los Angeles has not been able to grapple with gridlock is because we've been unable to make the tough decisions."

More SoCal, Oregon, Washington State

LA's decision to move ahead with its first attempt at pricing some of its highways comes only weeks after Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski announced he'd be pushing for congestion pricing in metro Portland as part of a comprehensive transportation package he'll present to the state legislature in January, 2009. A spokesperson for the Governor indicates the I-5 crossing of the Columbia River exemplifies where he'd like to see congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing is already in place on I-15 and the South Bay Expressway in San Diego, plus State Route 91 in Orange County. Further north in the West Coast corridor, a four-year congestion pricing pilot project begins on a nine-mile stretch of State Route 167 in south suburban Seattle this week. The Seattle Times reports this morning that officials are also considering the possibility of eventually adding HOT lanes to I-90, I-405 and the I-5 express lanes. With the special lanes on 167 to open in six days, more than 9,000 motorists have already signed up for electronic tolling accounts. Tolls will range from 50 cents to $9 depending on real-time congestions levels. Buses will use the lanes free of charge, as will cars with two or more passengers (drivers will cover their transponders). The Times:

Washington state's latest highway experiment can't begin soon enough for John Mastandrea, a real-estate developer who takes Highway 167 on his commute to Seattle. "When I leave in the morning, it's before 5 a.m., so it's about 25 minutes," the Auburn resident says. "But going home in the afternoon, it's an hour to an hour and a half. You can imagine the brain damage, sitting in traffic."

...As for the future, Paula Hammond, state transportation secretary, said she doesn't foresee another gas-tax increase, so more tolling will be needed to maintain or expand highways. A logical next HOT-lane extension would be I-405, according to Bruce Agnew, of the Seattle-based Cascadia Center think tank. Those lanes could connect to Highway 167 and generate funds that in turn could help pay for widening I-405, he said. "I suspect that people would be willing to pay top dollar to get through that choke point," he said.

The SR 167 HOT lane tolling system will be de-activated between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m., so solo drivers can use them free then without even worrying about covering their transponders. The Washington State Department of Transportation notes at its blog that it will be providing running updates at its SR 167 web site on average HOT lane speeds, usage and toll levels.

There's more congestion pricing coming to Puget Sound. Pending expected state legislative authorization by September 30, 2009 of specific time variable tolls on the State Route 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington, between Seattle and the Eastside business centers of Bellevue and Redmond, another USDOT Urban Partnerships grant will be dispensed. It will total $138 million for the new SR 520 tolling project and will spring loose another $3.5 million in U.S. DOT transit funds for the region. The SR 520 tolling project will not only tame jammed rush-hour traffic on the bridge, it is hoped, but also help fund a vital replacement of the aged and unsafe bridge, the true costs of which will likely exceed $4 billion. As SR 520 congestion pricing begins, it is likely the legislature will also authorize it on the parallel I-90 floating bridge.

Fred Hiatt's Take

The approach is rapidly becoming part of the national conversation on regional growth, traffic congestion and the environment. Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, though also supporting federal gas tax hikes which others regard as low-yield and politically bedeviled, nonetheless highlights the viability of congestion pricing. Hiatt writes:

The reality is that road pricing is inevitable. It won't be a panacea, and the administration has unfairly burdened a good idea by supporting it while refusing to increase other revenue sources for transportation. The D.C. study showed that road pricing doesn't necessarily solve the revenue problem. Tolls on Maryland's intercounty connector (ICC), for example, should keep traffic flowing, but they won't come close to covering construction costs.

But congestion pricing is working in London, Stockholm and Singapore, and variable-rate tolls are coming to Washington on three projects already: new lanes on part of the Beltway in Virginia, new and converted lanes on Interstates 95 and 395 in Virginia and the entirely new ICC in Maryland. Tyler Duvall, acting U.S. undersecretary for transportation policy, says...global experience shows that road pricing is far more popular once it's implemented than in anticipation, when many people just don't believe it can work. "This is not an easy idea to sell," he admits. "But it's so much better than the alternative." Something to think about while you're sitting, at no charge, on the Beltway tonight.

Tolling, Regional Taxes & Pension Funds

Hiatt is right that tolling and specifically congestion pricing will not alone address transportation funding needs. But federal and state gas taxes are increasingly ineffective sources, as related revenues flat-line and then drop due to increased fuel efficiency. And political prospects for higher gas taxes continue to shrink with the record run-up in U.S. gas prices. To supplement tolling revenue and get needed road, bridge and transit projects built, will require increases in state and especially regional taxes and fees, plus tolling and innovative financial partnerships. That could include coinvestment from union pension funds, now being eyed by legislators and Governor Rick Perry as potential backers of more toll roads to cut Texas-sized congestion in the economically-vibrant Lone Star State.

Tolling & Transit

Tolling revenues should never be used, even partially, to try to diminish a deficit in a state's general fund budget, as was proposed in New Jersey. Money raised via tolling must go back into transportation and transportation only. Road users expect no less, and they're right. But that doesn't have to mean roads and bridges only. In growing metro regions such as Puget Sound, some share of tolling revenues should definitely go to transit - in each case, within the same corridor where those tolls are collected. That's especially appropriate where new variable tolling strategies are being implemented, which allow transit and carpools to use priced lanes for no charge.

Avoiding Pitfalls

One other thing. Every now and then the idea surfaces - as in a recently completed, Puget Sound-focused study - that not only could major state and federal highways be tolled, but so too could major arterial streets in a metro region; or even every mile travelled by passenger vehicles, on any road or street. Cars would be tracked with dashboard-mounted devices, Global Positioning Systems and cellular technology. Some routes would cost more than others. This is a provocative idea worthy of discussion, but in the end it's simply too draconian to toll every mile driven, or arterial streets. Not because of privacy concerns, which can be overhyped, but because of the sheer overreach. Nothing like this is going to happen in Puget Sound for the next several decades, at least. Wherever officials advance what I'll call saturation tolling, they'd undercut public support for the more judicious approach now gaining traction - variable pricing on highways.

8:41 AM |


Congestion taxing is a good idea to get people to leave your state en masse.

1) The GPS device is a serious violation of privacy... Do we really want to emulate England which is heading down the path of 1984?


2) It's not practical for people to live where they work, as the prices for homes around employment centers (like MS in Bellevue/Redmond) causes those homes to be prohibitively expensive for the average consumer. If you start a congestion tax it will make this disparagement even worse. Homes in outlying areas that service the high employment areas will become worthless, while homes in the high employment areas will become even more expensive.

3) How does this solve the congestion problem anyways? It just punishes people for driving. According to the Washington state financial review board put in place by Tim Eyman's initiative, we could come up with enough money to fix the freeways by cutting 25% of the administration in the WSDOT.

But the current governments answer to ALL problems is to punish the working class.

How much tax do you think they will take before leaving, and leaving the local government with no money influx? It's happening in California (they are moving up to Oregon and Washington) and Eastern states like New York and New Jersey. If it becomes cost prohibitive to live and work some place, I'll have to move to a state that is less prohibitive.

I'm certainly not alone in this regard.

A GPS device for ascertaining road user fees need not be a means of tracking vehicle location. It's a matter of system design, and we have years of time ahead to get it right.

As Matthew Kitchen pointed out in the PSRC Traffic Choices study, it comes down to what information leaves the vehicle. It is possible to design a tolling system that only collects aggregated financial information from a tolled vehicle, leaving the detailed information behind in the car for retrieval by the vehicle owner only if she or he wishes to contest the bill of charges.

For this reason Matt Rosenberg in his commentary is correct that privacy concerns of GPS-based tolling are overhyped.

Now, quite apart from how transportation revenue is collected, whether taxes or user fees, the previous commentator is quite right that excessive taxes and fees can cause people to flee a region.

It is vital to get transportation spending under control, including avoiding highly visible expenditures on transportation services that cost too much for what they deliver.

For example, Austin, Texas may learn this lesson the hard way if the new $90 million commuter train there only delivers the 1,000 commuters per day now forecast to ride on it by the government authorities establishing this train.

Locally, anybody who runs the cost and ridership numbers on Sound Transit's daily commuter trains from Everett to Seattle knows that this service is a cancer on efficient use of transportation resources.


I think that over time, as Puget Sound's population swells by something like the 52 percent that PSRC projects (from 2000 to 2040) and as priced lanes are introduced on SR 167 (this week), and eventually also on I-405, SR 520, I-90, I-5 and SR 99, that transit usage, including commuter rail, is going to increase more than modestly.

As will longer-haul express bus service (if a regional network of free-flowing variable-priced highway lanes is established), plus ride-sharing, employer transit and other forms of para-transit.

Things will look somewhat different through the green eyeshade of 2020 or 2025 than that of 2008. But even then I wouldn't expect a level of transit subsidy seen as suitably modest by all will have been achieved - with respect to any particular mode.

I think there's some legitimate social psychology involved in support for beefier regional transit, which isn't included in the purely numerical analysis.

Namely, that people may often support the funding of more transit because of the perceived benefit to society and the environment, even if they may not use transit all that often now. It is the opportunity to use it and make it more effective that draws support.

The development of the north-south Snohomish-Renton Eastside commuter rail and recreational trail corridor will ultimately prove wise; wiser still if the complementary Everett-Snohomish connection can be realized.

Post from Rosenberg reads, "In growing metro regions such as Puget Sound, some share of tolling revenues should definitely go to transit."

The argument for providing toll revenue for transit operational support in the specific case of Puget Sound region is weak, given that direct public transit agency spending already consumes about 50% of regional transortation funding.

Isn't investing toll revenue in a road infrastructure that provides free and clear passage for transit vehicles enough support for transit?

Air travel has become a major part of our society, with industries and individuals depending on air transport for their livelihood. But have you ever wondered what happens to the artifacts of our airborne culture when they're no longer needed? More..

While everyone is trying to seem like they are looking ahead and planning for the future, no one is mentioning that the electric vehicle (no emissions)and very high mileage hybrids (very little emissions)are just around the proverbial corner.

What we need in the Central Puget Sound area is more highway capacity, not less and not the same.

Planning should be focusing on giving people what they want, rather than focusing on a cram-down option of spending our collective wad on transit.

The fact is, that people prefer to drive in their own vehicles and need to. One can't do business on a bus or light rail trains, and one can't deliver goods or services using transit. Our weather and darkness during the commute hours during mush of the year, is not conducisive to people walking long distances to bus stops, or waiting out in the weather for a slow local to arrive.

We are not all paper-pushers sitting at the same desk all day.

Working parents need a car to take children to childcare, pre-school or school, and to pick them up again or meet them at home.

It's time for the generally male social engineers to either hang up their hats or get with it. Women work. We have children to take care of before and after work. We need cars to be able to handle the exquisite timing in the morning, the time involved in getting kids fed, dressed and to child care, pre-school or school, and then to our work locations ON-TIME. We don't have hours to get that done. We can't get children to where they need to go in the morning via bicycle. We need a car.

We can't spend hours getting to work, and then after school, getting the kids to the doctor, to the dentist, to the orthodontist, to their after-school activities, sports practices and music lessons and tutoring and all the other activities they are involved in, via bus or light rail or the Sounder train. We can't do that and also do the shopping for the household and fixing dinner and finishing the laundry and cleaning the house.

You want a happy life? Have a happy wife!

That can't be done on transit if you have children.

The so-called pollution of more roads (storm water run-off)can be taken care of through known and existing ways. It's not rocket science.

And people can be generous towards each other, in terms of recognizing that the cost of roads should be shared by the entire community, not just drivers. Everyone benefits from roads. That is how you get stuff and get to stuff and activities and work and school.

Roads ARE not the enemy. Transit is not the great panacea to the costs or problems of handling of growth.

Transit is very expensive. It can only carry a limited number of people. It only works for a very limited number of people. That is why so few people use it.

We need more road capacity in the Puget Sound area, AND we need our leaders to figure out how to move more quickly to advance the advent of the electric car, the hydrogen car, and the very high mileage hybrid.

The problem is that our "leaders" and our population have not kept up with the need for adding more road capacity.

IF the the green-house gas issue could be resolved by the electric are and other low emission technologies, why not build more highway road capacity?

Seattle could feel better about their anti-road opinions and help the environment by tearing up some streets in Seattle and turning them into parks and pea-patches and green belts, so they have those assets like suburban communities do.

The city of Seattle probably has more concrete on its city streets and arterials than I-5, I-405, I-90 (in King County), or on SR 520 combined.

Welcome to the blog of the Cascadia Center, a Seattle-based transportation policy center.
(The views therein do not necessarily reflect those of Cascadia Center)