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. Mike B says:

    Once again I have to ask why are you putting so much effort arguing for HOT lanes. I don’t know any of reasonable party that is seriously against the use of HOT lanes. Even HOV -2 lanes are underutilized, increasing highway costs are big with the green lobby, are preferred over increasing gas taxes by the conservative lobby and by targeting those with disposable income it is popular with the liberal lobby.

    You seem to be picking a fight with uninformed BANANAs, which is a fight that’s not worth having. Even Pennsylvania is likely to slap toll booths on the currently free I-80 over its entire length, so point of view has already prevailed.

    I believe the problem that people have isn’t with tolls (or even variable tolls) on premium travel routes (State turnpikes when built were basically nothing but large “Lexus highways”), but the wide area congestion charging zones sticks a nip down to the grocery store with a $10 “convenience charge”. Not only do the overhead costs of such systems virtually wipe out the profits, they remove even the option for those with low opportunity costs to pay with time rather than cash.

    As an effective “road monopoly” the state must regulate itself to provide consumers with a range of driving options, some premium, some basic, and allow for a range of payment options in terms of cash and time. Geographic mobility is a basic necessity that when made unavailable traps people in disadvantaged circumstances.

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  2. Jesse says:

    The systems design on this one intrigues me.

    1) How to efficiently inform drivers of current toll rates and travel delays, as well as alternative routes available. Optimal route choices depend on knowing this before you arrive at a tollbooth.

    2) Construction and transactions costs. Modifying roadways and building tollbooths is expensive – when will the project pay for itself? What new costs are introduced to driving? (e.g. time through tolls, exact change or ez-pass devices, distraction of selecting efficient route)

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  3. Hume says:

    All roads should be private. Tolls, although the inevitable outcome of a free society, will not help the immoral and inefficient “public” highway system. Anyone with experience dealing in government highway contracting understands the reality of the situation.

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  4. CR says:

    There is something a little disheartening about the idea of erecting gates and concrete barriers in the middle of an interstate as a way of increasing the flow of traffic.

    I find the entire concept of toll roads to be misguided. Toll roads put a barrier on various forms of commerce, not just in the cost of the toll, but in the collection of the toll which often costs businesses more lost revenue than the cost of the toll itself. In other words, the cost of _paying_ the toll is actually, in terms of opportunity costs, more than the cost of the toll. This lost revenue also represents a loss of tax revenue.

    We increasingly have the means of making real time traffic monitoring data available to drivers. As this technology matures and becomes mass market, I believe that many of the traffic problems that we have will be able to self-correct much quicker as people’s route changes dynamically in response to congestion and accidents.

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  5. PaulK says:

    One of the problems with toll lanes is that you really need to limit the number of places you can enter and exit them, else they are slowed by cars entering from the non-toll lanes and slowed by people exiting to the non-toll lanes (which are likely slower). Minimizing entry/exit then limits their value and utility outside of rush hour, since more traffic will be short hop. This limitation of entry/exit increases the retrofit cost as well of course (barriers).
    If this model of fixing the speed works so well, then the red/green lights at freeway entrances should work better than they do. Three bigger problems causing the accordion effect are people merging in and out of roadway (and moving across lanes), lanes being added and removed (poor road design, usually from upgrades to add more lanes), and big trucks which have a very poor acceleration capability (so amplifying the effects of local slowing). Your toll roads do not address any of these, and likely make them worse (people trying to get over to/from the tool road have to cross the other lanes).
    I also did not see any explanation of how you stop more people using the local side roads (residential, towns, etc).

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  6. David Brent says:

    So no more free love on the free love freeway?

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  7. Kirilius says:

    Two comments from me:

    1) I think the goal is not to remove congestion on SOME roads but to help people get home or to work faster. Here in Toronto some of the highways get pretty busy during the rush hour (for that reason the DVP – Don Valley Parkway is often referred to as Don Valley Parking lot). But this does not mean that the small streets are empty at the same time. On the contrary – small streets are equally congested during rush hour and it is even slower go take an alternate route (believe me, I have seen that). So if congestion fee is charged at the peak hours this will drive some cars off the highway to the small streets, WHICH ARE ALREADY CONGESTED ;-)
    The final result will be: a few (generally) wealthier drivers going home faster and many others going home slower.

    2) A comment to your previous post and the example given about how scarce goods were distributed in the former Soviet Union: suppose you have a good that has a very limited supply on the market, let’s say 1000 items produced only. Suppose that the demand is high – more than 1000 people want to have it. Now in Soviet Union the 1000 people that would get it will be those who are (a) lucky and (b) those who are friends/relatives to the people in charge of distribution. In the US those 1000 people will be the richest 1000 of those who want to have it.
    In each case ONLY 1000 people will get the good. What is different is the profile of those people. In once case those will be people with luck and connections, in the other those will be the people with money.

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  8. Joe D says:

    The best way I know of to reduce congestion is to mandate (through automatic control of brakes) minimum following distances. Try this the next time you’re on a highway where the speed is varying between 5 (or 0) and 45 mph: Accelerate more slowly than the vehicle in front of you, let a significant following distance build up, and don’t brake as soon as the car in front of you does, just coast for a while. This evens out not only your speed, but the speed of the car behind you (hopefully), the car behind that one, etc. It won’t actually get you any farther any faster (you won’t get past the guy ahead of you, and you can’t control his speed), but you will ease the congestion sooner for the cars way behind you.

    Alternatively, build highways that aren’t roller coasters. Here in Tampa, the contractor for I-275 cheaped out, and only elevated the highway over major thoroughfares. So when there’s heavy traffic, every time someone crests an overpass, they see brake lights, and slam theirs on. Then at the bottom of the hill, the pace picks up again. Stupid.

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