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.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Using Tolls to Relieve Congestion

Tolls as a Tool - A Practical Way to Relieve Traffic Congestion in Washington 3/5/05

by Paul Guppy and Kelli Aitchison

March, 2005

Summary of the Problem, and Toll Road Options:

Researchers at the Reason Public Policy Institute (RPPI) of California have done extensive research on the benefits and drawbacks of toll roads within their state, as well as in other countries that have implemented similar projects. RPPI, like Washington Policy Center, is a member of the nationwide State Policy Network.

California has some of the highest traffic congestion rates in the nation, with Washington quickly approaching the same numbers. An expanding economy and an increasing population in Washington mean an ever greater reliance on freeways, yet the majority of transportation dollars today are spent on simply maintaining current roadways, rather than expanding their capacity.

Toll roads and pay-to-drive HOT lanes offer Washington policymakers a practical way to increase road capacity and reduce congestion. The following findings drawn from Reason Public Policy Institute research and reports from other states illustrate this point.

1. States such as Virginia, Colorado, Florida and Texas have all instituted forms of toll roads based on examples in Europe and Australia. Elected leaders in these countries found that their citizens are willing to invest billions of dollars in new transportation improvements, provided the cost of the projects are fully or partially repaid through toll roads.

2. Electronic toll tags are a cost-efficient way of collecting road user fees. In Puerto Rico, for example, a $10 sticker tag as thin as a credit-card is attached to the car windshield. Other states using windshield sticker tags include Texas and Florida. A more expensive option is a next-generation electronic transponder attached to the car. The transponder provides much greater range and can be used to summon roadside assistance in pre-set safety zones. Some advocates want the auto industry to factory-equip all new cars with such transponders.

3. There are a number of different types of toll-roads:

a) Truck toll-way systems. These systems cut down on the time truck-trailer combinations and other large trucks spend in traffic, as well as reduce traffic time for passenger cars. A lot of traffic congestion is created by unnecessary braking by drivers. By moving trucks to a separate, faster lane, cars are no longer changing lanes to avoid these trucks, thus cutting off other motorists and increasing the time it takes to brake.

b) Public-private ownership legislation. This makes funding for toll-roads much more feasible. The RPPI study found that a 1989 attempt to fund a Californian toll-road through only private donations led to overly restrictive non-compete clauses in franchise-agreements and were not flexible enough for construction to be completed.

c) Multi-level toll roads. This is the way France has built its toll roads. The shorter roadway accommodates large vehicles and trucks, while the longer roadway accommodates passenger vehicles willing to pay a toll.

d) Adaptive cruise control. This type of roadway is an alternative to toll-roads. The system reduces the time it takes a driver to brake by using radar to monitor how close each car is to the one in front. The idea is to cut down on the interrupted stop-and-go flow of traffic during high congestion times.

Examples of Successful Toll Roads:

1. Toronto's Highway 407 ETR. The province of Ontario created the Ontario Transportation Capital Corporation and funded the project through the sale of public bonds. The project was built in three years and was able to pay off the debt from construction just two years after its completion. Tolls are collected through electronic transponders. The license plates of cars without the appropriate transponder are photographed and the driver is sent a bill in the mail. The project is privately maintained and operated, and is fully financed through the tolls collected.

2. San Diego's Interstate 15 Freeway. San Diego has a light-rail system that was implemented in 1981 and remains widely unused by citizens. To promote use of light rail, transportation officials began charging a toll (based on HOT lanes) on Interstate 15. The tolls are enforced by computers, so drivers are not stopped at collection booths, and the cost of the toll rises or falls depending on traffic volume. The system is calibrated so cars are kept moving at an average pace of 60 mph, which is actually much faster than the nearby light rail service. Toll lanes also alleviate congestion in the other lanes on the freeway. For a $10 billion project such as this, the Reason Public Policy Institute estimates that the toll lanes will earn back up to two-thirds of their cost, resulting in a net taxpayer subsidy of about $4 billion of the original $10 billion spent.

3. Great Britain's M6 Toll Road. In 1989, British officials initiated a new toll roadway to run right next to the toll-free M6 freeway from a little south of the industrial center of Birmingham to just north of the city. By 2004, after many legal battles, the new, tolled M6 was up and running and relieving much of the congestion on the existing toll-free motorway. The toll road also makes it easier for transit authorities to repair and improve the old motorway by diverting drivers on to the new road that parallels same route.

Potential Obstacles to Toll Roads:

Funding. Opponents of toll roads point to the costs of building and maintaining these roads. Most recent toll roads built in other states and around the world have cost billions of dollars, and have been built with a combination of public and private revenues. Research by RPPI indicates government officials should assess the long-term payoff of such an investment. An example is the San Diego freeway, where, as noted, taxpayers will pay in the end only $4 billion of the $10 billion cost of building the new freeway. Market competition and private sector involvement in building tolls roads works to keep waste and cost overruns in check, compared with traditional, government-run public works projects.

Social Implications. Opponents of toll roads say that it is unfair to allow faster travel times for people who can afford to pay more. But proponents of toll roads say the costs of tolls is low compared to the cost of owning, maintaining and insuring a car, and that even people unwilling to pay to drive in the toll lanes benefit from less congestion in the regular traffic lanes.

Environmental Impact. Opponents say that building more roadways to accommodate HOT lanes and other types of toll roads just eats up more land and harms the environment. In Irvine, California for example, environmental activists protested the Foothill Corridor because it runs through San Onofre State Park.

These fears appear to be overblown. California transportation officials designed the roadway to have as little impact as possible on wildlife, with the result that the natural character of the park remains largely unchanged. In Texas, the worries of farmers about the impact of toll roads on their farmland are being accommodated through advance planning and design. In South Africa, the Department of Environmental Affairs recently approved a toll road project, saying the project's feared environmental impacts would be minimal, while it will provide much-needed for transportation improvements for the people of that country.


The research conclusions of the Reason Public Policy Institute and the experience of other states and countries with toll roads show that these projects can provide an affordable, workable solution to traffic congestion problems. Washington state faces problems with congestion similar to those in California, so a closer look at toll roads in San Diego is helpful in learning how such highways would work in our state. The full text of the RPPI study, "Building for the Future: Easing California's Transportation Crisis with Toll Roads and Public-Private Partnerships," is available at at

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