Blog Steady Progress On Congestion Pricing, Tolling

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.