The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

In Favor of NYC Congestion Pricing

Traffic Congestion Solutions

February 9, 2007

by Diana Furchtgott-Roth

What if Mayor Bloomberg were to announce that on-street parking in New York City would be free, with no time limits? Initially New Yorkers might be pleased. But they would soon discover that no spaces were available, because cars would stay parked for long periods of time.

That's what happens with free goods, in this case, curbside parking places: People consume too much of them, far more than if they would pay for them. Similarly, in much of Manhattan and on some streets in other boroughs, traffic is a nightmare because motorists don't pay the full cost of road use.

Although New Yorkers pay gas taxes, these don't cover anywhere near all costs. Drivers pay about 2 cents a mile in gas taxes, whereas travel-costs in congested areas — those costs imposed by each additional driver on other drivers — can be between 10 and 40 times as much. Because roads are underpriced, they are so packed that drivers can move only at a snail's pace.

As the secretary of transportation, Mary Peters, recently said, "Today, congestion is choking our cities, clogging our highways and airways, and complicating our lives. … gridlock is taxing our economy and our environment."

President Bush, after enjoying six years of speedy motorcades, wants to improve the flow of traffic for everyone. In his 2008 budget, the president asked Congress to allocate $175 million to state and local governments to reduce traffic congestion, on top of $130 million for 2007.

The Department of Transportation has asked state and local governments for proposals. Here's Mayor Bloomberg's opportunity to snag some funds and get traffic moving.

The only effective way to reduce traffic congestion is to use pricing. This is increasingly accomplished by electronic tolling so drivers don't have to stop. Driving at peak hours, or along certain congested roads, would cost more, so that less-urgent trips would be rescheduled or rerouted.

New York City could impose higher tolls for bridges and tunnels during rush hours and charge for cars entering lower Manhattan in the morning rush, or for cars traveling within lower Manhattan during the business day.

Alternatively, New York could opt to charge for distance driven. It might copy GPS-based distance measurements being developed in Oregon, or the mandatory meters inside cars in Singapore. Ideally, charges would reflect miles driven in congested areas.

Other states have improved traffic flow through road pricing. In Florida, a 25-cent discount on a 50-cent rush hour toll induced 71% of drivers to change the time of their trip at least once a week. Minneapolis allowed drivers to pay a toll to use speedier high-occupancy vehicle lanes, which resulted in a 50% reduction in rush-hour congestion and a 12% decrease in crashes.

Southern California's SR 91 has express lanes with electronic tolling at variable prices. These lanes — which are used by all income classes and are particularly popular with women due to their speed and lower accident rate — carry twice as many vehicles as free lanes during hours with the heaviest traffic. And vehicles go three times faster than in free lanes.

Some on the political left claim tolls are unfair to lower-income drivers. To resolve this, Alameda County, Calif., and Atlanta, Ga., are experimenting with Fast and Intertwined Regular lanes. Drivers in fast lanes pay tolls, and drivers in slow lanes receive credits. Such credits can be used toward payment of tolls for future trips, or for other transit-related activities. In New York, credits could be given to lower-income drivers through license plate numbers.

But it's not tolls that are particularly detrimental to the poor, because they can be rebated — it's congested roads. Congestion lowers mobility, making it harder to travel to much needed jobs. Converting some highway lanes to toll lanes gives low-income drivers a valuable choice of more time. A waiter on his way to pick up a child from day care might find a toll cheaper than a late fee.

An objection from the right is that President Bush is breaking his no-tax pledge. However, like parking charges, tolls are not a tax. They are a user fee for road space. Toll revenues can be used not only to ensure that road space is not overly crowded and available when people most need to use it, but also to finance road improvements. One example is new truck-only highways, such as a new tunnel from Brooklyn to New Jersey.

Only in the past decade has technology to price road use become widely available and reasonably affordable. The potential benefits to Americans in time and fuel savings are enormous. State and local governments have an obligation to use this new tool to enable traffic to flow freely.

Americans rely on prices for a stable supply of food, clothes, water, energy, and telecommunications. Why should roads be an exception? Pricing can improve the usefulness of existing roads and attract funds for improvement. New York should give it a try.

This Op-Ed was featured in <em>The New York Sun</em> edition of February 9, 2007.

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