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

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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. James A says:

    “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.”

    You’ve got to be kidding me. Something for nothing? And from the government no less? It’s amazing how one paragraph can destroy any credibility you had in this writeup. All should know that the gov’t is one of the most inefficient users of capital the world has ever seen. Once they get a taste of new tax revenue, it won’t be just used for roads. It will then be used to plug “revenue gaps” in the general fund or be “diverted” to other “essential” needs. Anyone heard of the Educational Lottery? How much is going for education and how much is plugging gaps in other funds? The idea you propose is interesting, but to put gov’t in such grandeur is an insult to intelligence.

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  2. Ed Kay says:

    And don’t forget the safety issue. For years the State of Illinois brazenly proclaimed that its toll roads were built to be safer than its free roads. Here’s the ditty broadcast endlessly on the radio, sung to chorus of Loch Lomond:

    You’ll take the highway and I’ll take the tollway,
    and I’ll get there safely before you.

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  3. Corban says:

    Road design is an optimality problem.

    This article is merely a persuasion piece to encourage people to even bother with the problem.

    Thus, I think appealing to the road design issues at this point doesn’t discredit the idea. It is a matter of theoretical vs. practical concerns.

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  4. Olivia says:

    I echo Karl’s sentiments – I think that tolled lanes are obviously better suited to particular roads simply because of the design and amount of space available. The amount of capital that would have to be thrown into making certain roads toll-ready, though a long-term investment, is probably staggering enough for the project to be pushed aside for quite some time, at least in Ohio. But I can think of roads like OH-315 as it passes through the city, and even I-270 in Columbus that might be suited.

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  5. gtp says:

    wouldn’t the use of variable tolls require new roads /lanes to put them on? And wouldn’t the additional roads / lanes decrease congestion? You can’t retrofit all lanes with tolls because you would still have capacity issues where suface roads are not an option.

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  6. Erin says:

    In response to Mike, I think the idea is that if you were to drive those lanes today without the congestion pricing, the amount of traffic the lanes experience is variable. So, while the average load in the lane may be 33%, with so many more cars the actual travel time may vary considerably depending on what time of day it is. The congestion pricing would allow for users to be assured that they will always be allowed to travel at a minimum speed of 45 miles per hour, which isn’t something they get normally. I think that’s what they would be paying for.

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  7. jblog says:

    It’s not so much a question of adding tolls, in some cases, but varying them based on traffic conditions.

    In Stockholm they’re seeing success in reducing both traffic congestion and emissions through a congestion-charging system.

    http://www.stockholmsforsoket.se/upload/Rapporter/Expert_group_summary_060621.pdf

    Such a system may not be “fair” to everyone, but it is not inordinately unfair.

    Full disclosure: I work for the company that helped implement this system.

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  8. Jeff says:

    I understand congestion control but beleive we need to seperate the cost component from the argument. We already have transporation tax dollars being spent on non-transportation projects so advocating yet another tax is a long row to hoe.

    Lets assume the argument is true that restricting traffic entering into a freeway to hold average speeds at 45MPH or above actually INCREASES throughput. If that is the case then lets just do it with timed and gated on-ramps. Everyone gets the same hypothetical benefit without added taxes. I’m also assuming these gates are cheaper than building a new road…

    The authors argument also assumes all of the current toll information is available to the travelinng public the instant the routing decision is made. More reason for public resistance… a constantly changing toll cost that will change in a way that will be perceived as arbitrary.

    Now, what I’d love to hear are opinions on what the actual unintended consequences of interstate congestion pricing will be :-)

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