Cold Water from Congress on Congestion Pricing

Congress was back in town this week and the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit jumped in with a timely hearing on congestion pricing and tolling. Charging a fee for the busiest parts of the roadway network reduces demand and travelers seek alternative routes or modes of travel.

Congestion pricing can take several forms but is usually deployed in two main ways. Several global cities like Singapore, London, Stockholm, Oslo and Milan employ cordon (or area) charges which assess a fee on motorists that drive in a defined area of the city center. There are no examples of area charges in the United States though New York City is poised to put a plan in place by 2021 that charges drivers to enter the busiest part of Manhattan. It is expected to generate about $1 billion annually for their beleaguered transit system while reducing congestion by about 10 percent.

The other way—more common in the United States—are fees or tolls on discrete corridors, or on certain parts of roads such as those with high-occupancy toll (HOT)  lanes. In these cases, motorists are only charged if the vehicles are single occupant thereby encouraging drivers to carpool or take public transit. Such lanes function today in San Diego, Minneapolis, Denver, Houston and Salt Lake City.

While approaches vary, congestion pricing has proven to be remarkably effective at reducing vehicular travel, emissions, and road damage. But while congestion pricing is supported by transportation economists, it is not well understood by the general public or most elected officials. That was evident at the hearing.

Despite Subcommittee Chair Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D-DC) focus for the hearing on “methods to get rid of congestion and bring us into the 21st century” members splashed a lot of cold water on the concepts of pricing and tolling. Norton criticized the toll rates on the new rush hour lanes on Interstate 66 inside Washington’s Beltway. The charge is based on real-time traffic conditions and the price increases as traffic increases with the idea that fewer users will pay, and congestion will alleviate. While the fee famously exceeds $40 during super peak periods, recent data from the Virginia Department of Transportation shows less than one-tenth of one-percent of trips pay a toll that high. The average toll is just $1.63.

Transportation Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said he was “disturbed by the obsession with tolling and congestion pricing” and proudly declared that Oregon doesn’t have tolls, it has FREEways. He was clearly frustrated the discussion did not focus more on raising the gas tax or on the slowness of technological deployment. Similarly, Rep. John Katko (R-NY) postulated that the interest in congestion pricing and tolling is a result of Congress not doing its job to shore up the Highway Trust Fund. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) argued that Congress should not be asked to raise taxes so the witnesses “can have less congestion in your cities.” (Bewilderingly, he also asserted that there are no major metropolitan areas in North Carolina or Georgia that receive federal transit money.) (Ed. Note: The FY 2019 federal transit funding apportionments and allocations, by program and metro area, are here.)

Conversely, testimony and comments from the witnesses was very well-informed. On behalf of the American Trucking Associations, Darren Hawkins clarified that the trucking industry does not oppose toll financing on new lanes, nor the conversion of carpool lanes to HOT lanes. Truckers, after all, pay $24 million in tolls each year and pricing strategies “can be appropriate to handle specific issues around the country in select cities.”

Tilly Chang from San Francisco County’s Transportation Authority talked about the work they are doing to study congestion pricing in that region. She noted their initiative is based on the funding they got from the federal government’s Urban Partnerships Program in 2008. That study found multiple benefits – less trips, faster busses, less emissions, revenue generated.

The Oregon Department of Transportation’s Travis Brouwer testified that their state legislature recognizes “they can’t build their way out of congestion” and mandated the state begin to develop options where tolling might be effective. Among other things, the analysis recommended that any pricing strategy should 1) avoid unintended impacts like diversion onto local streets, 2) avoid disproportionate impacts on low income households, and 3) ensure there are alternatives to avoid tolls like transit.

Such pricing and tolling guidance is important for states and cities in order to inform the implementation of their unique strategies. That’s why Eno is working now with major U.S. metropolitan areas to develop a set of pricing principles for them to consider as they continue to innovate to address their own congestion problems. It is evident that Congressional support on this score is not coming any time soon.

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