Why You'll Love Paying for Roads That Used to Be Free, Part Two


Eric A. Morris is a researcher at U.C.L.A.’s Institute of Transportation Studies, concentrating on a variety of transportation issues including history, economics, and management. Earlier this week, he wrote the first half of a provocative essay on road tolls. Here is the second half.

Why You’ll Love Paying for Roads That Used to Be Free, Part Two
By Eric A. Morris
A Guest Post

In my prior post, I blogged about introducing variable tolls on America’s highways. The basic idea: fight congestion by imposing tolls that vary in response to traffic levels. When roads are too crowded, hike up the tolls, keep some drivers out, and thus keep traffic free flowing at all times.

This idea is getting a lot of traction with opinion-makers and transportation officials, but a skeptical public has yet to be convinced. There is good reason for this; several perfectly valid arguments can be raised against tolling.

Is it fair that government will be charging for roads that motorists have already paid for through the gas tax? Won’t this policy benefit the wealthy, who can easily afford the tolls, and punish the poor? And what will happen to the drivers who avoid the tolled facilities? Won’t conditions in the lanes that remain free degenerate, as refugees from the tolled lanes pour in?

These are good questions, but toll advocates have equally good answers. Believe it or not, converting some of the lanes on a congested freeway to toll lanes should benefit everyone, even the people who choose to never use the tolled lanes.

The reason has to do with the curious mechanics of traffic congestion. When few cars are using a road, speeds are high, but the light volume means few cars get through. Add more cars and eventually speeds start to slow, but the increase in volume means that throughput rises. When a road is just crowded enough so that speeds are around 45 m.p.h., the most cars are pumped through the system.

But add even more cars and trouble starts. Speeds break down, taking throughput down with them. When roads are severely congested, you get a paradoxical situation: the more cars you jam in at one end, the fewer come out the other end.

By pricing to keep traffic speeds at 45 m.p.h. or a bit higher, the toll lanes will work with maximum efficiency. They’ll move a lot more cars through than they did when they were congested. During the peak periods on SR 91, the toll lanes handle 40 percent of the traffic despite the fact that they constitute only one-third of the road surface. So the toll lanes will actually ease the burden on the free lanes, hence the benefit even to those who never choose to pay.

What about the argument that only the rich will be able to afford these new “Lexus lanes”? Ed Sullivan of the California Polytechnic State University has extensively studied the express lanes on California’s SR 91, America’s first variable toll facility.

He finds the equity issue isn’t nearly as clear-cut as it may seem. Those with higher incomes and education do use the toll facility more than others — but not that much more. Many low-income people use the facility frequently; you don’t have to be rich for your time to be valuable. Moreover, many wealthy drivers do not use the facility at all. In all, Sullivan feels the “Lexus lanes” argument is largely a red herring.

Interestingly, the most important factor in predicting who will use toll lanes is not class, but gender. Women use the SR 91 tolled lanes 10 percent more than men do. This is probably due to the fact that women’s travel patterns are more complicated than men’s, and that even in this enlightened era, women undertake a disproportionate number of the household-serving trips. Since women have a more difficult time balancing home and work responsibilities, they are more likely to take advantage of the time savings. In a weird way, tolling may strike a blow for gender equality too.

Still, isn’t this just an excuse for government to get its hands on even more of your precious dollars? Uh, well, O.K., you got me on that one. Let’s not pretend government is jumping on this bandwagon due to fear of the political might of the transportation economist lobby. Although transportation officials are certainly cognizant of the many benefits tolling will bring, fundamentally this issue is getting political traction (six states have operational pilot programs) because the revenue is desperately needed.

Transportation agencies at all levels of government are in a serious financial bind. Thanks to the waning purchasing power of the fuel taxes (again, see this), they are facing unfunded maintenance backlogs, and fancy new projects seem like pipe dreams. Tolls are a very promising source of new revenue.

But is this a bad thing? Our transportation system is in trouble and tolls are a fair way of raising the revenue to maintain it. Shouldn’t users of the transportation system bear the burden of its upkeep?

Even better, paying government to use the roads would get us something for nothing. When you pay a toll, the money is transferred from one party (you) to another (the government). Granted, it is annoying to be the one doing the paying, but at least the money goes to a (presumably) good cause, such as an improved transportation system.

But when you sit stuck in traffic, your time is wasted and no one is benefiting. Better to transfer money from one pocket to another than to let all that time go up in smoke.

And there are other benefits. Since travelers will want to split the cost of the tolls, they’ll have an incentive to rideshare. And new possibilities will open up for transit, since buses that use the tolled lanes will now be able to provide high-speed express services, even on the most congested routes.

O.K., O.K., congestion pricing won’t cure the common cold or bring peace to the Middle East; but it’s rare that a public policy can produce so many winners with relatively small costs.

Selling variable tolling to the voters will be an uphill struggle, particularly when it comes to adding tolls to previously free lanes. There is considerable skepticism about this policy. But there is hope.

The early projects show that motorists initially have doubts, but they become enthusiastic converts when they see and use the facilities. According to the last survey, over 70 percent of SR 91 express-lane users — and even over half of the nonusers — approve of the use of variable tolls. My guess is that someday you will too. Here’s hoping it will cost you $6 to drive home in the near future.

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  1. Dave says:

    You should look to the experience of Toronto’s 407 ETR. It has been disaster. What was intended was a bypass around Toronto for one of the world’s busiest freeways (the 401). What has been created is a very high fee freeway that primarily services a wealthy area.

    It is completely unaffordable to an average wage earner. Tolls have increased by many multiples since the highway was opened. Customer complaints have made news headlines on many occassions. The contractual arrangements associated with the highway perpetuate this mess and hamper public policy.

    What is worse is that existing traffic infrastructure in Markham and Richmond Hill (large northern suburbs of Toronto) was disrupted by the new freeway. Many regional streets now cut off or more difficult to access. As a result, traffic has been made worse. More than a decade later, new public transit options are only now starting to be discussed.

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  2. Kirilius says:

    I agree with Dave (@73).

    407 was probably designed with the idea that private business will take care of the cost for building it (and get revenue from the toll). In reality 407 is very underutilized because of the high toll. So people still flock on the 401 and the original problem of getting more people home faster is still not solved.
    If both 401 and 407 were to operate as public free motorways, THAT would really increase the throughout significantly because for the whole span of 407 the traffic could literally be split in half.

    Anon (@72): “If a toll system is put in place which increases total throughput in tolled lanes” – I agree – the throughput will be increased ONLY in the toll lanes (so those willing to pay will go home faster) but this it at the expense of the people who will not pay and therefore take the already slower local streets making them even slower.

    I love the comparison given by shaman (@64) with McDonald’s. The real issue will not be solved until more roads are built. Toll lanes solve the problem only for those willing to pay.

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  3. ginsbu says:

    Disappointed that you didn’t make the equality argument for road pricing: free roads, the costs of which are not covered by gas taxes, are a huge subsidy to motor vehicles. Road pricing is just a way of getting drivers to pay for what they use, so other people don’t have to subsidize them. For all the complaints about subsidizing public transit, it’s astonishing to me how rarely it is mentioned that motor vehicles are actually subsidized more!

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  4. Sam says:

    I believe pricing is a viable option for managing congestion in areas with few other options, such as Southern California. However, in all discussions of congestion pricing and tolling I have heard nothing mentioned about how “human factors” will influence the operations and effectiveness of any priced facility.

    First, a brief discussion of average travel speeds and assumed operations:

    There have been numerous statements to the effect that maintaining an average speed of 45 mph on the priced facility will allow for maximum throughput and minimal congestion. The Level of Service concept in traffic engineering states that LOS A (or the best) operations occur at free-flow speeds (typically 65 mph or greater on modern freeways). Therefore a 45 mph average speed would indicate a reduced Level of Service, perhaps LOS C or even D. A Level of Service C or D indicates increased congestion and reduced ability to maneuver on a freeway segment.

    Next, a discussion of human factors:

    Most freeways in Southern California have free-flow speeds of 65 mph or greater (some of the older freeways have lower free-flow speeds). If one was to drive their vehicle and set the cruise control at 65 mph they would likely be passed, honked at, tailgated, or much worse. Drivers tend to exceed the speed limit with increased frequency. I believe this is one of the human factors that pricing must address.

    It seems that there is a desire for all drivers to “get there faster” and to “go faster than everyone else.” I believe this results in increased speeding, which in turn results in more drivers reacting differently, increased breaking on corners that were not designed for high speeds, and a quicker “shockwave” effect when one driver in a queue slams on their brakes. If vehicles traveled at or near the free-flow speeds of facilities, operations would improve greatly.

    One example is I-110 between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena. This is the oldest freeway in America. It has a posted speed limit of 55 mph (and many turns caution 45 mph or less). I have observed many drivers flying down the freeway at speeds in excess of 65 mph, only to watch as they slam on their brakes when they approach a turn or at gore points. This results in other vehicles behind them slamming on their brakes, quickly causing traffic congestion and bottlenecks. However, if one was to set their cruise control at 55 mph exactly, they would find that there is little or no need to use the brakes (in regards to freeway design) along the entire freeway segment. It is purely human factors that appear to cause the congestion.

    How does this relate to pricing?

    If the goal of pricing is to ensure 45 mph average speeds, I believe that a majority of drivers will enter the facilities and try to travel at speeds in excess of 65 mph, causing a rapid decline in system performance. I believe that the benefits of pricing must include educating drivers to the benefits of traveling at constant speeds within a group. Similar to quantum mechanics, the erratic movements of some particles (vehicles) in the system can cause a rapid destabilization in overall system performance.

    In conclusion, I believe that it is the human factor of an increased propensity to speed that needs to be addressed in order to make pricing a truly effective tool.

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  5. Boris says:


    If the average speed is 65, clearly it cannot be that “a majority of drivers” are traveling above 65. I think that some people speed because they want to go faster than everyone else, as you said, but others speed because of some perceived (or real) obstacle ahead that they want to get past. This is one reason traffic lights are bad- people race to the light to try to make it while it’s green.

    If the traffic flows freely- and is guaranteed to flow freely, as in the case with congestion pricing- then many drivers would no longer have a reason to race, reducing dangerous speeding.

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  6. Sam says:


    If you read my previous post closely you will see that I never say that average speed is 65 mph.

    Your statement about traffic lights highlights my point about human factors. Why is a red light perceived as an obstacle one must get ahead? Everyone knows traffic lights alternate between green and red (with the yellow interval), allowing people at intersecting streets their turn to travel. If a driver approaches a light that is turning from green to red, there is an excellent chance that after a short while, typically between 60 and 120 seconds, the light will turn green once again.

    I believe people have a mindset, a similar mindset as when they speed, that they must make the next green light because they are in such a hurry. This is exactly the human factor which I believe has not been addressed in the discussion of pricing. It is only my observation, but it seems that more and more vehicles are speeding along our freeways, always in a rush and always in a hurry, and I think this human factor is a critical element to consider in the design and operation of priced facilities.

    In my opinion, it is this sense of rush and hurry that will guarantee that a substantial amount of users of a priced facility will continue to travel at speeds greater than the free-flow speed. This in turn will negatively affect operations on priced facilities unless something is done to address these human factors.

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  7. Driver and Transit Rider says:

    While it’s a ‘nice idea’ to claim that transit services will also benefit, the real world of real trips is much messier. It turns out that freeways are usually the absolute worst place to run transit routes! For many reasons – mainly that freeways are not pedestrian friendly and are not the hubs of much housing or employment density due to noise, pollution etc. Developments are “close by” by driving terms, but not via walking. So to address this you claim express services will benefit, well, perhaps some will. In my region where they’ve done this – it turns out there’s very little market for the express services, so the funding is going to run buses that are mostly empty. Transit networks are complex systems to make work well and mainly we don’t plan them well enough in the USA since in most places they are considered a welfare service – not competitive infrastructure required to support smart growth. For an interesting presentation on global best transit planning, see: http://movesd.org/Downloads/FASTonline%20version%202.4.htm

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  8. MekhongKurt says:

    I can tell you another objection, at least in Texas: the state government wanting to privatize toll roads, regardless of the type of pricing they use. Not every single one, but some — and I’m among the suspicious. I have to pay the fuel tax. I might choose (and have chosen) to pay the toll on a government-owned tollway. But I’m deeply suspicious of the private sector getting in on this. For years our roads have too often ended up costing way too much — roads built by private contractors.

    You make some cogent arguments here, true. But I’m not fully convinced, though that likely has a much to do with my dim view of state and local government in Texas as it does with the merits and demerits of tolls, variable and otherwise.

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