Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Congestion Pricing--The Solution To Gridlock?

Many residents of metropolitan areas in America know gridlock intimately. Even the folks who use mass transit for the daily commute to work, a pretty significant element of the population here in Portland, still know what a growing problem urban roadway congestion is. Most people can't rely entirely on public transportation for getting around the city, and we all know what it's like when we have to run out to the store unexpectedly, or pile the kids into the van to head to the dentist, just in time to hit rush hour(s). Some of us are frustrated by the belief that much of the traffic nightmare could be alleviated if our city would take necessary actions, and some hold firmly (with some solid ground underfoot) to the notion that the city refuses to expand the highways and roads from a political desire to force greater and greater numbers of people onto the bus or train--the notion being that if they make enough people miserable on the daily drive, the same people won't mind as much being miserable on the daily bus ride.

I speak as something of a dispassionate observer. My daily commute frequently involves going from my bed, to my shower, to my computer, vacuum, dishwasher, etc. However, that doesn't mean that I don't care about the struggle that goes on to balance traffic congestion, city access, cost, pollution, energy usage, convenience, and all the other elements that factor into our decisions about how to move human beings from point A to point B. I still go to the store, and the dentist, and church, just like the rest of you. Taking the kids to the dentist requires a leap of imagination for me, since I have no kids, but I do have the requisite imagination with which to leap, and when we're in the middle of whatever the latest home transformation project happens to be, Home Depot becomes our second address. It's not uncommon for us to head that way two or even three times a day. (Yes, you're right, we're not very good planners.) The route there includes stretches of freeway and busy thoroughfares, passing by the airport of all places. Getting there can take fifteen minutes, or forty, depending on the time of day and the state of traffic. I feel your pain. Really I do.

Anyway, I thought I'd pass on this TCS Daily article, by Joseph Giglio, about traffic congestion and private industry solutions to public highway woes, with some economic theory thrown in for added flavor. I'm not sure I agree with Giglio's position, but I did find it interesting, and think it has some merit on its face at least. He writes about a request from the Bush administration to Congress to provide funding for American roadways, which included a recommendation to institute "congestion pricing" on road use, as a way to alleviate snarled traffic across the country:

This week the Bush administration asked Congress for $175 million for state and local governments to reduce traffic congestion, in addition to the $105 million earmarked last year. One of the White House's marquee projects is congestion pricing, or charging motorists a fee for using a particular roadway based on its traffic volume at any given minute.
Giglio says that, while the media and the left will claim this as a capitulation to the Al Gore wing of the Democratic party, that really it is "conservative economics at its best." He goes on to explain:

For decades, conservatives have championed market-oriented solutions to highway problems as a means to allocate scarce resources. Congestion pricing gives consumers the opportunity to decide when it is in their economic interest to ride crowded roads, and whether the price charged for a given trip is worth their travel time savings.

In the former Soviet-bloc states, the standard way to allocate scarce goods was to set the purchase price low enough for everyone to afford, but to make consumers wait in long lines to buy them. The real price depended on what value consumers placed on their time.

This approach is the way we've always allocated access to most roadways in capitalist America - access is "free," just like for a public park. But our real cost skyrockets when we consider the time we spend crawling along in bumper-to-bumper traffic and with no option to pay extra for a faster trip.

Giglio goes on to discuss how, with "the advent of Electronic Toll Collection technology," the means are now available to make that choice possible, and adds:

Just as consumers are billed for water, electric power, cooking gas, and other essential utilities, motorists pay according to how many miles they travel, how large a vehicle they're driving, how much air pollution they generate, and whether they're subject to certain physical or economic disadvantages that entitle them to special discounts. This can be especially important for commercial vehicles where time saved translates into fewer operating costs. And let's remember that the main purpose of surface transportation is to facilitate and enhance economic activity.
Giglio explains further what he believes are the advantages to congestion pricing, and how such a system could help fund improved roadways, and lessened gridlock, using the private sector to make it all work. I'm not completely convinced that charging people for the amount of time they spend on the road, and how big their vehicle is, and how much pollution it contributes, etc., is the ultimate answer to the problems of modern commuting, but I do like the notion of the private sector being more involved in solving the problem, and I'm willing to be convinced that usage fees are the way to fund improvements, as long as those fees actually deliver the promised gains, and don't drop down a giant black hole of "rising costs." Anyway, have a look, and tell me what you think, if you're so inclined. I'm malleable on this one.