Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The President pushes congestion pricing

From the Wall Street Journal this week, an article about President Bush's push for congestion pricing in his new budget.
In his annual budget blueprint to be unveiled today, Mr. Bush intends to showcase a highway "congestion initiative," according to White House documents, with grants for state and local governments to experiment with anti-jam strategies.

... a plan depicted by administration officials as "congestion pricing." The administration will award $130 million in grants starting this spring to help cities and states build electronic toll systems that would charge drivers fees for traveling in and out of big cities during peak traffic times. The money also could go to other congestion strategies such as expanded telecommuting, but administration officials make it clear they think congestion pricing is the most powerful tool they have. The White House will seek an additional $175 million for congestion initiatives in next year's budget.

...transportation officials have armed themselves with studies suggesting that traffic itself is becoming a big hidden tax on businesses across the country, as well as the No. 1 quality-of-life concern in many urban areas.

Congestion pricing "is a lot cheaper than the way we're paying now ... with time, unreliability, psychological hell," said Tyler Duvall, DOT's assistant secretary for policy.

The DOT estimates the total cost of U.S. congestion at about $200 billion annually, or almost 2% of GDP, counting wasted fuel, delays, environmental costs and increased inventory needs.

The White House, under fire for failing to embrace a more aggressive global-warming policy, is portraying the plan as part of a climate change strategy. Administration documents estimate that "travel delay ... wasted 2.3 billion gallons of fuel" in 2003, a total that "accounts for more than 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions."

In cities and regions that have adopted congestion-related fees, the most common approach is to offer solo commuters the choice of paying during rush hour to travel in the high-occupancy lanes reserved for car-poolers. Some tolls on existing turnpikes also have been adjusted higher for rush-hour travel.


The Bush administration is distributing $130 million in grants to help cities build the electronic systems needed. Department of Transportation officials expect more than 10 major cities to apply before the April deadline. (If you know Houston officials that might initiate such an application, please forward this post to them. Thanks!)


Even a 5% reduction in traffic jams can increase traffic speeds by as much as 50%, says Mr. Duvall. DOT officials figure a typical big-city traffic jam can be cleared with tolls of as little as $2 to $2.50 a day, if all lanes on a big highway are charged. But on some Southern California highways where fees are charged only for the former high-occupancy lanes, prices at the peak of rush hour have reached $8.50.

Congestion pricing has already taken hold in Europe, and the success of a congestion pricing system for London's roads three years ago motivated U.S. officials and major businesses to consider the idea. Voters in Stockholm approved a similar plan in September, after a test run during the summer.

The article included the table below showing how Houston's ongoing transportation infrastructure investments over the last two decades have kept congestion growth well below most major cities. Also note that extensive commuter rail transit investments have not relieved congestion in Chicago, DC, or San Francisco - a benefit that is commonly promoted with commuter rail proposals.

My proposal would be for Houston to be very aggressive going after this money to convert the left lanes of most our freeways to congestion-priced EZ-tag lanes (this would be in addition to Metro's HOV lane conversions), while letting commuter buses and vanpools use the lanes for free. Having a comprehensive network of high-speed lanes to all our job centers (not just downtown) would go a long way towards encouraging car/vanpooling and transit ridership. More details here.


At 8:17 AM, February 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


A quick comment on the London congestion charge as I just came back to H-Town from my stint over there. The London municipal government will be expanding the area covered by the congestion charge. I do not know all of the the details off the top of my head and would have to take time out to research and discuss them, but the congestion charge area is set to be pushed out a few miles.

At 5:52 PM, February 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oslo has a similar congestion charge I believe. I think it is a great idea.

In the end, we must find a way for people to absorb the externalities of using a personal car for transportation. That could mean higher fuel taxes, higher registration taxes, or having people pay a distance fee as they travel. I prefer the last option, although the cost of setting up such a system could be too expensive. I also think that people should be charged a higher or lower rate based on the type of vehicle they drive. If it is a smaller, fuel efficient car they would pay less. Someone with an SUV would pay more. Large trucks would pay even more.

At 9:14 AM, February 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's an old article now, but the Economist's survey on commuting from Sep 3rd 1998 (you can see it for free if you watch an ad) is still well worth reading. It discusses several of the different externalities related to driving, and various attempts to price them.

"random thoughts", rather than a distance fee also based on fuel economy, why not the good old gas tax?



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