Rush-Hour Tolls Raised to Reduce Traffic

Congestion pricing -- forcing motorists to pay more for peak-hour driving -- is in pilot, but with political problems.

by / April 30, 1997
Congestion pricing
-- forcing drivers to
pay more for
peak-hour driving --
is in pilot, but with
political problems.


By Tod Newcombe
Associate Editor


PROBLEM/SITUATION: Highway and road congestion continues to get worse.

SOLUTION: Congestion pricing puts a premium on driving during peak periods. Using technology, local and state governments can efficiently collect tolls that vary according to time of travel.

JURISDICTIONS: California, Calif. Dept. of Transportation, Colorado, Minnesota, New York.

VENDORS: MFS Network Technologies, California Private Transportation Company.

CONTACT: Karen Frick, Metropolitan Transportation Commission, 510/464-7704.
Over the last decade, the number of vehicles using the interstate highway system has risen more than 30 percent and demand is expected to grow by another 50 percent in the next generation, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Every year, businesses lose an estimated $40 billion in lost productivity to congestion.

The primary cause of congestion is the huge numbers of single-occupant vehicles using limited highway capacity during commuting hours, according to Thomas J. Graff, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. He pointed out that the best and probably only practical way to tackle the single-occupant vehicle problem is through pricing.

Congestion pricing is an attempt to put market forces to work on the highway. Charge extra for those who drive alone during peak hours, and governments can generate revenue while inducing individuals to adjust their travel patterns to avoid or reduce the added out-of-pocket costs. Drivers are then more likely to travel in groups, travel less or use mass transit. Many industries, from air travel and utilities to phone service and resorts, use congestion or peak-period pricing to manage demand.

However, today's conventional toll systems have their problems. They are costly to run and create pollution by forcing vehicles to wait in lines to pay. One way around the problem is to use technology. Electronic toll collection (ETC) systems use vehicle-to-roadside communication technologies known as automatic vehicle identification to process toll payments electronically between the vehicle and the toll authority at or near highway cruising speed.

ETC systems rely on a wireless telecommunications link to perform the transaction. Vehicles equipped with palm-sized transponders exchange information, usually an identification code, with a roadside receiver, which sends the information to a computer. The computer uses the code to identify and then debit the driver's account based on the type of vehicle and the time of travel.

ETC systems increase fare collection by as much as 30 percent, cut operating expenses by as much as 90 percent, increase vehicle capacity by 250 percent and reduce fuel consumption by as much as 12 percent, according to the U.S. DOT. The Tappan Zee Bridge, which carries a tremendous amount of traffic across the Hudson River north of New York City, was fitted with several ETC lanes to augment attended lanes. Bridge authorities found that vehicle speed during peak hours increased from 8 mph on attended lanes to 25 mph on automated lanes, which also handled an average 1,000 cars per hour while operators could accommodate no more than 350 cars per hour.

Ironically, the Tappan Zee automated toll system provides daily commuters with a hefty discount when they travel during peak periods. Studies show the discounts are increasing congestion on the bridge and defeating the purpose of ETC technology, making it likely the bridge authorities will eventually eliminate the discount. Meanwhile, in Southern California, congestion pricing and ETC has received a significant boost. A 10-mile section of state Highway 91, from Riverside to Santa Ana, has become the state's first private toll road using ETC systems and congestion pricing.

A private firm, the California Private Transportation Company, built the highway for $126 million and charges as much as $2.75 during peak periods of commuting and as little as 50 cents during nonpeak hours. More than 80,000 commuters have opened accounts and use transponders to whiz through the system's automated toll lanes. Overall, drivers are reporting they save between 20 and 40 minutes a trip during rush hour.

In San Diego, single-occupancy drivers will be allowed to pay for the privilege of driving on an existing, underused high-occupancy vehicle lane 10 miles north of the city's business district. Initially, the fees will be fixed, but by 1997 an ETC system will vary the charges according to the time of travel.

Concerned about public reaction to congestion pricing, state and local government officials in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area have conducted public surveys and focus groups to explore the use of congestion pricing in the metropolitan area. Results indicate that drivers are receptive to variable pricing when it clearly reduces waiting and congestion. Drivers also like the idea of using revenues from congestion pricing to support transportation improvements, including mass transit. Currently, Minnesota doesn't have a time schedule for implementing congestion pricing.

Other regions looking into the use of congestion pricing include Boulder, Colo., Houston, Seattle and New Jersey. But Orange County's private highway remains the only toll road actually using ETC and congestion pricing. If congestion pricing can reduce travel time and pollution while raising revenue, why aren't more state and local governments using it?

Cities and counties appear reluctant to implement congestion pricing primarily because of institutional barriers and concerns over political acceptance. Studies have questioned the fairness of congestion pricing, indicating that those who can least afford it are those who have the least control over their work schedules: the poor and women. Then there's the question of whether drivers will continue to take the same routes once congestion pricing takes effect. Higher tolls on major arterials could direct significant traffic to quiet neighborhood streets, disrupting communities. Perhaps most important, many government officials fear drivers will view congestion pricing as nothing more than a new form of taxation.

That's just the problem California faces, as attempts to introduce congestion pricing on public highways and bridges have stalled. In 1993, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approved funding for a congestion pricing pilot project for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Following extensive evaluation, the project team, consisting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the California Department of Transportation, proposed raising the toll from its present flat rate of $1 to $3 during rush hour. The estimated revenue increase of roughly $22 million would be used to fund improved transit alternatives.

Then politics stepped in. California lawmakers considered raising tolls on all five bridges that cross San Francisco Bay to pay for reinforcement needed to protect the bridges from the next big earthquake. MTC and other groups urged the Legislature to consider charging peak-period tolls to improve traffic flow.

Meanwhile, studies raised the projected cost of bridge retrofitting from approximately $250 million to as much as $1.3 billion, according to Karen Frick, a project manager with MTC. But with a strong anti-tax mood among state legislators, authorization to raise the tolls has not happened. "Our Legislature in their anti-tax mood was not about to pass anything that looked like a tax," explained Frick.

While politicians remain hesitant to enact congestion pricing, efforts are under way to expand the concept and practice of charging variable tolls according to the time of travel. The U.S. DOT, through its intelligent transportation systems program, is urging state and local governments to adopt ETC systems and methods of congestion pricing, along with other traffic and transit management systems that ease congestion and reduce reliance on vehicles. Organizations, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and institutions such as the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs are continuing to research the concept.

With automated tolls and congestion pricing on Orange County highways an apparent success, proponents of congestion pricing know that adoption of their idea is no longer a matter of if, but when. As Gloria Jeff, FHWA's associate administrator for policy, pointed out at a congestion pricing workshop last year, the barriers to successful implementation of congestion pricing are not technical, but institutional and political.



Sports Van or Semi?
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is spending $30 million on electronic toll collection (ETC) system technologies to improve the flow of traffic and cut the cost of collection on Bay Area bridges. The transportation department believes ETC can save the state an estimated $2 million a year by eliminating some of the state's toll collectors' jobs.

However, Caltrans faces a special problem. Bay bridges have 17 different tolls, based on the size of the vehicle. A vehicle identification system would not only have to tell the difference between a car and truck but also between a pickup truck with a trailer and a motor home.

Problems have cropped up with the technology used by contractor MFS Network Technologies. Specifically, the identification system has trouble identifying the number of wheels on each axle. While able to work correctly 96 percent of the time, the technology apparently didn't meet Caltrans' high standards. Tests on a new technology began in March of this year.


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