motorists accept charges for using roads?
One of the strange things about freeways is that if they are managed properly,
far more vehicles can be carried on them than if they operate on a free-for-all
basis as is currently the case.
The reason is that when freeways are full — but still free
flowing — and traffic is moving around 55-60 mph; each freeway lane can handle
more than 2,000 vehicles per hour.
However, when automobile freeway speeds drop down to the
30-40 mph range, traffic flows become unstable and motorists start to
experience waves of starts and stops, often for no apparent reason. It is for
this reason our freeway lanes will only carry 1,500 vehicles an hour at such congested
That means that if we were able to smooth out the traffic we
would be able to carry one-third more vehicles on our freeways during the rush
hour and get commuters into and out of town much faster than we do currently.
The problem is that the only practical way to take advantage
of this is through congestion pricing; it is the only remedy that has worked
Congestion pricing is the use of tolls collected seamlessly by
way of an electronic recording device placed in the windshield that charges
your credit card for highway use as you pass by roadside signals.
The closer you drive to the peak of driver demand, the higher
the toll. The desired outcome is that
with carefully graduated pricing, motorists distribute themselves evenly
throughout the peak period.
Here’s the principle: When our demand for things exceeds the
supply, which is the case in virtually all the other economic transactions we
make in life, we price them differently so that the demand comes into balance
with the supply.
We price hamburger differently than T-bone steak, although
they cost the same to produce, because the demand for each is different. Demand,
and thus pricing, for telephone and electricity use tends to differ by time of
day, even though the cost to produce them is the same.
The only other ways to manage supply and demand is by
rationing or waiting in line. Presently, waiting in line is what rations peak
hour freeway space; daily we have thousands of automobiles all lining up to get
into and out of downtown.
However, while pricing offers an opportunity to eliminate
traffic congestion, it will be difficult for our officials to come to grips
Elected officials never want to convey unpleasant news to
constituents and pricing roads that were formerly free is, at first blush, bad
news. This is why our federal elected officials set up institutions like the
Base Closing Commission.
If we are ever to adopt congestion pricing, it will have to
come as a demand from voters and that will only come when they eventually
understand the advantages of it.
The greatest danger in congestion pricing here is that
elected officials will want to spend the added toll revenue on pet projects and
the last thing we need is another tax. But we could remedy this by way of a Congestion
Pricing Commission that would reduce gas taxes to offset the toll income. The
Commission’s mandate would require it to ensure that, administrative costs
aside, the scheme be revenue neutral.
Minister of Transportation announced
recently that such a plan would be in place nationwide by 2014. They will
eliminate gasoline taxes and instead charge motorists a basic small amount per
mile for highway maintenance, and an
additional congestion charge per mile according
to time and place. To be motoring around London’s
busy Piccadilly Circus at noon will be very expensive
while traveling on rural roads at 3:00 am will be cheap.
Congestion pricing now has a solid foothold both nationally
and internationally and it is just a matter of time — maybe a long time — before
we see that it will also make sense for us.
Cliff Slater is a
regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at: www.lava.net/cslater
lane freeways (4 lanes per direction) the two leftmost lanes usually operate at
2,400 vehicles per hour per lane, including H-1 by Aloha Stadium.
 Quotable from SURFACE
TRANSPORTATION INNOVATIONS. REASON FOUNDATION ISSUE NO. 27, NOVEMBER 2, 2005
At the ARTBA Public-Private Ventures conference in Washington last month,
the most inspiring presentation I heard was by Rep. Mike Krusee, the Texas
legislature who sponsored the sweeping 2003 legislation to enable much greater
use of tolling in that state. Here is an excerpt, on the subject of traffic