Saturday, May 14, 2005

Keys to unlock our gridlock

It's probably a bit unseemly to toot your own horn in your blog, but if journalist and author Virginia Postrel can tout her NY Times articles in hers, I should be able to tout my Houston Chronicle opeds in mine - especially when they're the lead in the Sunday Outlook section. The editorial (permanent link) is built around the 3-part mobility solution posts I did a couple weeks ago. When the new 2005 Texas Transportation Institute numbers came out, I figured the timing was right to submit an editorial.

One line did get accidentally cut out in the transition from page E1 to E5 (online version is ok). Here's how the sentence should've read, with the missing piece in italics:
"These private transit companies will offer more nonstop services from more neighborhoods to more job centers with more convenient schedules, increasing commuter transit usage and reducing solo drivers on the freeways."
And, in yet another coincidence, there is a very well written cover story in Governing magazine this month on using congestion pricing to break gridlock. A few interesting excerpts:

One version of that future will be unveiled this month in Minnesota. Starting May 16, congestion pricing is coming to Interstate 394, west of Minneapolis. The highway’s carpool lanes will open up to solo drivers, who may buy their way into the lanes using a transponder attached to their windshield. Sensors in the pavement will monitor traffic volume, feeding data into a central computer every 30 seconds. The price will fluctuate as often as every three minutes, depending on how heavy the traffic is, and will be determined based on an algorithm intended to keep traffic moving in the toll lanes at 55 mph. During rush hour, the total price for an 11-mile trip could rise as high as $8. Late at night, when fewer drivers are on the road, it will cost a flat 50 cents to use the toll lanes (the price will be posted on electronic highway signs). Carpoolers and buses can still use the lanes for free. ...

Minnesota’s HOT project also proves that the politics of road pricing have changed. The early experiments with congestion charging in California were continually dogged by a social-justice critique that said only rich people could afford to buy into toll lanes. Critics called these projects “Lexus lanes,” invoking an image of luxury cars breezing past lower-income drivers, stuck in their Chevys and Hondas amid the red glow of brake lights. Today, however, the Lexus lane argument seems to be fading. For one thing, California’s experience is proving it wrong. It isn’t just rich people using the fast lane. But there also is a new consensus on road pricing, between many on the political right and the left, that didn’t exist just a few years ago.

Historically, it was free-market conservatives who gravitated to the idea of using tolls to manage congestion. Economists have been talking about it since the 1950s; Friedman himself once co-authored an essay on the topic. Through the 1990s, the conservative Reason Foundation made congestion pricing one of its most celebrated causes, promoting it as a market-oriented tool for dealing with traffic. Lately, however, the idea is catching on with the political left — not just in the United Kingdom but in the United States, too. Environmentalists have come to see congestion pricing as a way to improve air quality by keeping traffic moving. Transit supporters see toll revenues as a source of funding for public transit systems. And advocates of “smart growth” see any movement to put a price tag on driving as a good thing — hopefully inspiring more people to use transit or to buy homes located closer to where they work. “Road pricing 15 years ago was a bit of a gleam in an economist’s eye,” says Michael Replogle, a transportation specialist with Environmental Defense. “Today, we see that it works, it’s efficient and it can produce a lot of winners.” ...

The [Minnesota] plan passed with broad bipartisan support. “There is now a much clearer recognition that the pricing tool is the most powerful way to manage congestion,” Johnson says. “We’d be absolutely silly not to give this a try.”

Public opinion seems to have shifted, too. In March, the University of Minnesota released a survey of 1,000 people who drive I-394 frequently. Sixty-four percent thought the toll plan was a good idea. Most tellingly, support is just as strong among people whose household incomes fall below $50,000 as it is among those above $150,000. Minnesota’s data tracks with surveys from San Diego, where focus groups show that lower-income drivers use the HOT lanes, too, especially when they’re in a pinch. “Even for the less well-off, it’s affordable, and probably smart, to use the lanes on days when their value of time is higher,” says Ken Buckeye, the program manager for MnDOT. If the choice is between paying $1-per-minute late fees at the day care center or a $4 toll, for example, people of all income levels are likely to pay the toll.

Part of the political support for congestion pricing in Minnesota came from transit advocates. One reason is because some of the toll revenues — half of whatever is left after paying to administer the system — will support expanded bus service along the corridor. A second factor is that transit advocates like the idea of sending drivers another price signal, in addition to the cost of a gallon of gasoline, which might induce them to consider alternative modes of transportation. Ann Rest, a Democrat and transit supporter, sponsored the HOT lane bill in the Senate. “I hope that when people begin to see the actual price of driving their single-occupant car, that they will realize the savings they could get from carpooling, vanpooling or taking the bus,” Rest says.

Evidence from San Diego suggests that those price signals make a big difference. After I-15 switched over to variable tolling, the number of carpoolers on the road doubled. This is very exciting stuff for transportation planners, because it means that the existing highway capacity is being used more efficiently. “When you’ve got a finite resource like highway lanes, you’ve got to manage it in a way that provides you with the greatest return on your investment,” Buckeye says. “The variable fee is just a very logical step to manage demand.”


At 11:12 AM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My name is Jay Aiyer, and I am a candidate for City Council At Large #2. I read your op-ed and your blog with great interest. I think your ideas are very well thought out. In particular, the understanding that we have to get more out of our barrier HOV system (unused 95% of the time) is a serious issue. When you get a moment please take a look at my website

Thank you for engaging in serious policy discussion.

take care,

Jay Aiyer


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