Sunday, June 24, 2007

Getting congestion pricing right on Westpark and elsewhere

Catching up on my Chronicles from last week, it looks like Westpark tolls were a top story: first the proposed rush hour increases (doubling the tolls), then the blowback, then the giving-in to public pressure to rescind the proposal. Obviously an unfortunate situation, given that congestion pricing is definitely the wave of the future. Here are some ways I think it could be done better, with more public acceptance:
  • Real-time pricing: like some of the roads in CA, don't set a fixed pricing schedule, but adjust prices in real-time to reflect supply and demand. People will quickly learn which times of day fit their budget.
  • Integrate it from the beginning in all new toll road and managed lane projects. People need to know what "the deal" is before they choose to buy a house way out that road. They feel justifiably upset when they base their decisions on one price which suddenly changes on them a year or two later.
  • If real-time is not an option, raise scheduled prices in smaller increments and in narrower time windows: obviously an immediate jump to double the toll was too much all at once. A series of smaller increases as needed would have been more palatable. And six hours a day was way too broad. Start with a small increase in a narrower time slot, and expand every 6 months or so as long as it's needed. Give people time to make adjustments, like work schedule changes, transit, or carpooling.
  • Offer bargains just before and after rush hours: I actually learned this from an old proposal Art Storey made for Beltway 8 a couple years back: make the price just before or after rush hours actually cheaper than the rest of the day. This gives a strong incentive to people who have the flexibility to move their trip just a little earlier or later. I think his proposal was $1 most of the day, $2 at rush hours, and $0.50 the hour before and after rush hours. This also helps diffuse public opposition, because you're offering them a discount option in addition to the increase.
  • Better marketing: the average citizen doesn't understand the congestion pricing. The proposal I've been promoting for a while now is MaX Lanes, short for Managed eXpress Lanes - which "move the maximum number of people at maximum speed." Who can argue against optimizing our capacity like that?
  • Put the additional revenue in an expansion fund specifically for that road: people need to know that these extra charges are going to ultimately go to what they really want, which is more capacity on their specific commute. In the case of Westpark, it could go towards acquiring the additional RoW from Metro for expansion while offering them virtual express bus lanes (i.e. reserved capacity for their commuter buses).
Let's hope this incident doesn't permanently deter HCTRA and the county commissioners from much needed congestion pricing, which not only alleviates congestion, moves more people, and encourages employers to offer more flexible schedules and telework, but also gives people better pricing signals about the true costs of buying a house far out vs. close in.

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At 8:35 AM, June 25, 2007, Blogger Megan and Gavin said...

Here is a link to a WSJ article that provides a variety of congestion pricing strategies that appear to be rather effective...without the let them eat cake sentiment...

At 8:59 PM, June 25, 2007, Blogger Max Concrete said...

I think congestion pricing is going to have political problems everywhere it is attemped. I'm speaking of congestion pricing on all lanes, not on managed lanes where free capacity will still exist.

Sure, economists may love congestion pricing. But the reality is that many people do not have flexibility in their work hours, particularly low and middle income workers in industries like education and health care. The increased costs are substantial when done as per economists' ideals (jack up the price until traffic thins), and this will hurt lower income workers disproportionately.

Tory's ideas may help, but the underlying idea is the same: "price out" a certain percentage of the population.

I'm not aware of aggressive congestion pricing on a pure toll road in the US. (If someone knows of one or more, please advise). My guess is that we won't see aggressive congestion pricing, probably only small premiums like 25-35% which won't really thin the traffic but will generate more revenue.


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