Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Minneapolis congestion pricing experiment

As a followup to my earlier traffic congestion solution posts, this interesting blurb on congestion priced toll lanes in Minneapolis from Otis White's Urban Notebook at Governing magazine's web site. The simple point: people won't pay for HOT or MaX lanes during non-rush hours, no matter how cheap you make it. I'm not sure this would hold true in Houston - I think there are plenty of people that would pay a quarter for a high-speed left lane, even if it only got them an extra 10mph. Still, politically, it's probably just easier to do what Minneapolis eventually did: just make them free off-peak.

His posts don't have permanent links and soon roll into the archives, so here's the full text:

Choosing Congestion - Drive Free or Die

In May, the Minneapolis/St. Paul area embarked on a free-market experiment with one of its its highways, turning the carpool lanes of Interstate 394 into high-tech toll lanes, where the tolls depended on the amount of congestion and drivers paid with the aid of sensors on their windshields, which noted their presence in the toll lane and “swiped” their account as they drove by. So, how’s it working out? Well, there have been a few bumps in the road. Small problem: Some of those windshield sensors don’t work right. They’re supposed to beep when you drive under an electronic toll station, indicating you’ve been charged. About 70 of the 6,500 sensors beeped constantly, which unnerved drivers. (State transportation officials said no one was being “charged inappropriately.”) The greater problem: The toll lanes are causing a surprising amount of congestion in the free lanes. Why is this surprising? Because it isn’t happening during rush hour, when tolls can range as high as $8 for commuters in a hurry. It’s happening in the off-peak hours when it would cost only a quarter to cruise down the toll lane. The problem seems to be caused by the state DOT’s decision to charge tolls at all times. Before the toll system, carpool lanes were restricted only during morning or evening rush hours, so midday solo drivers were free to use them. But the DOT decided it would be easier to manage the toll lanes if they were always restricted to those willing to pay. Besides, who’d beef about being asked to pay a quarter to get out of gridlock? Apparently, lots of people. Drivers have confounded the experts by refusing to pay even a token amount to escape congestion, leaving transportation officials scratching their heads about what to do next. One solution may be the add another lane to compensate for the one taken by the toll traffic. All of which brings up a question: If it wasn’t to relieve congestion, why did Minnesota institute its toll lane system to begin with? Postscript: After thinking things over, state transportation officials did a U-turn, deciding it was a good idea after all for non-rush-hour commuters to use the toll lanes for free. In those hours, signs over the lanes will read “open.”


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