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Tolls to Pay for Transit: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?
Erica Barnett, 23 Oct 07
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Here in the Seattle region, the big debate this year is over a roads and transit proposal that would tie construction of 50 new miles of light rail to 182 new miles of highway lanes--canceling out the environmental benefit of new transit by adding capacity for tens of thousands of new cars on our highways every year. The measure, which is on the ballot November 6, is currently polling at about 50-50--bad numbers for any tax proposal this close to an election.

Politicians and pundits are already formulating their own plans about what to do if the measure fails. One of the most promising and progressive of these proposals comes from King County Executive Ron Sims, a maverick who has been one of the few mainstream political leaders in the region to come out against the ballot measure. Sims's proposal, called "Destination 2030--Taking an Alternative Route,"would pay for improvements in the region's transportation system, including new transit, with a "transportation improvement fee"--a dynamic toll with data collection points on all on- and off-ramps across the region's highway system. Some level of toll would apply all day; however, the highest tolls would be reserved for the morning and evening rush hours, when congestion is highest. Like transit systems that charge more for longer trips, the tolling system would charge drivers based on how much of the system they used; a trip through several "zones" could cost up to $8.

What's particularly innovative about this proposal is that it does not require any statewide contributions or a regressive sales tax, the current funding source for the region's light rail system. Instead, it is "based on the idea that the users of the overburdened, underfunded regional highway facilities should pay for the repair, replacement, and expansion of the transportation infrastructure they actually use... in proportion to their use of, and impact on, those facilities." Like carbon pricing schemes that fund investments in renewable energy, this system would fund not only roads maintenance and improvements, but transit improvements, too--improving the system for those who use transit, while shifting the cost of those transit improvements onto those who put the most burden on the system as a whole.

The idea is to create a disincentive to drive (the toll) while creating an incentive to use transit (improvements in the transit system that make it more reliable, faster, and cheaper than driving alone.) According to the proposal, the tolling system would cause drivers to shift to carpools and transit; take discretionary trips during less-congested periods; and decide against taking some trips in the first place. "By charging a fee that reflects the true cost of travel, it is possible to reduce congested conditions and improve travel times throughout the day."

Similar systems have been put in place or are in the works in many cities, including Minneapolis (which is implementing a High Occupancy Toll system during peak periods to help pay for highway infrastructure and new buses) and San Francisco, where tolls will be used to improve access to the region's ferry system, build elevated Doyle Drive to earthquake-safety standards, and invest in public transit. These proposals are related to but distinct from congestion pricing like those in New York and London, in which drivers entering the central business district are charged a toll; because traffic in places like Seattle and San Francisco is more diffuse, a region-wide tolling system makes more sense than one that focuses on the central city. Transportation planners estimate the new system could generate annual revenues of $1.6 billion in current dollars, or $36 billion over 20 years. With the region expected to have $40 billion in transportation needs over the next 20 years, spending that money will be easy. The hard part will be convincing state regional leaders that linking disincentives for driving to maintenance and transit improvements is a fair and equitable way to distribute our transportation dollars.

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Similar systems have been put in place or are in the works in many cities, including Minneapolis (which is implementing a High Occupancy Toll system during peak periods to help pay for highway infrastructure and new buses)

They're actually almost opposite. Lexus Lanes are repurposed federal highways that charge a small variable toll to allow people with the means to use single-occupancy vehicles on lanes designed specifically for multi-occupancy vehicles (like ridesharing and transit) and sometimes motorcycles. In essence, it allows people with the money to pay their own way out of congestion while the rest of the people who don't have the means get to continue to sit in stop-and-go traffic.

Sims' proposal seems to toll the whole highway, so no matter how much money one has, one can't simply buy oneself out of congestion. The only way one can avoid congestion is if the toll on the roadway incents a large number of people to either not drive during peak periods, or use alternative means like transit, ridesharing, or surface streets, which would free up space on highways.

In Minnesota particularly, the Lexus Lanes are actually in the red, despite claims to the contrary that they would fund transit. A lane expansion had to be built to deal with the increased congestion on the non-diamond portion of the highway, since part of the Lexus Lane rules involved cutting off access to the diamond lane from SOVs during off-peak hours.

Real congestion pricing (ala the Sims proposal) incents more alternatives to the SOV, including more people living in the urban core, whereas Lexus Lanes give people with the most money a quick and painless way to avoid the downsides of living 20 or 30 miles away from their high-income occupation. This ultimately undercuts urban development and the tax base, as now the incentive to buy expensive condos in the city to avoid traffic has gone away.


Posted by: WG on 23 Oct 07

Toll roads can be environmental hazards, too. Even if they use a system like EasyPass, they require drivers to brake and slow down -- if not stop completely -- which messes with efficiency and creates lots of air pollution.


Posted by: John Platt on 24 Oct 07

Congestion tax tolls don't work in Houston, but then again, nothing works in Houston.

Houston built toll expressways which are just as gridlocked near the toll plazas as the rest of the freeway system, and as John Platt points out, even the EZPass lanes are only slightly better.

In short: Tolls are not disincentives. People will pay them without a second thought. The problem of long-distance commutes is one that will only be solved through attrition; the current generation thinks it should drive to work.


Posted by: Paul Mitchum on 24 Oct 07

WG is mis-informed about the performance of High-Occupancy Toll lanes in Minneapolis. The initial HOT lanes on I394 are "profitable" and, because they absorb traffic that would otherwise travel on the general-purpose lanes, those lanes are also flowing more freely and carrying more vehicles at higher speeds -- everyone has been a winner whether they use the HOT lanes, themselves, or not! The users of the HOT lanes are economically diverse -- the typical user is a working mom rushing to get to day care before $5 a minute late pickup charges kick in. We here in the Twin Cities are so happy with the performance of our HOT lane on I394 that we're extending the concept to I35W south of downtown Minneapolis and we will be using the "profits" to subsidize a new Bus Rapid Transit line in the corridor that will also run in the free-flowing HOT lane.


Posted by: Elkins Econ on 25 Oct 07

WG is mis-informed about the performance of High-Occupancy Toll lanes in Minneapolis. The initial HOT lanes on I394 are "profitable"

Do you have actual hard data to support this claim, including all the costs of building it out, as well as the extra lane added for westbound traffic? Please give a link to that data.

and, because they absorb traffic that would otherwise travel on the general-purpose lanes, those lanes are also flowing more freely and carrying more vehicles at higher speeds -- everyone has been a winner whether they use the HOT lanes, themselves, or not!

That sounds like an informercial, especially the oft-used buzzword now employed - "free flowing." If there has been any change in traffic flow speeds, I'd like to see the data on the number of vehicles (and specifically, passengers) going through a given stretch of distance at a given time of day compared to data from before the Lexus Lane was established.

The users of the HOT lanes are economically diverse

That's another talking point oft-used. People who fly on private jets are economically diverse as well. The percentage of users from different economic classes is all that matters, and studies have shown that, as common sense would dictate, people higher up the economic ladder are overrespresented with respect to person-miles traveled on those lanes as SOVs.

the typical user is a working mom rushing to get to day care before $5 a minute late pickup charges kick in.

That's just false. Please show us actual data supporting that (which is another oft-used talking point of Lexus Lane advocates).

We here in the Twin Cities are so happy with the performance of our HOT lane on I394 that we're extending the concept to I35W south of downtown Minneapolis and we will be using the "profits" to subsidize a new Bus Rapid Transit line in the corridor that will also run in the free-flowing HOT lane.

It has nothing to do with public "happiness" with the concept. Of course people using it like it (why wouldn't they - they get a free shot back and forth from the exurbs on a lane built with tax money that they never have to repay). Any public "surveys" on the issue are deliberately vague or outright misleading. If people were asked "Do you like that this $500 million roadway built with your money is now used as a private express lane for rich people in luxury cars that buzz by your poor self stuck in traffic?", I highly doubt people would be pleased with it.

The reason it's gone on to I-35W is that it got lumped in as a condition of getting a large chunk of federal money. It was either accept the whole thing, with the Lexus Lane provision, or lose all the money.

Really, if the concept is as good as you claim it is, why all these deceptive tactics and lack of real world data publicly available about actual use by demographics? Publish actual data about actual person-miles by income class, as well as hard data on traffic flows for a given number of people, then it might be a useful discussion. Until then, all people keep hearing are little tales about working Moms going to daycare, which is clearly not the typical use. Please tell me why no money is being spent studying actual use as it relates to demographics. Why is that not being done?


Posted by: WG on 25 Oct 07

Actually, one can get a rough sense of what's happening from this survey:
[Link to pdf]

Of people using the diamond lane, higher income people ($125K+ household income) used it as an SOV 40% of the time, whereas those from lower income households only 7% of the time. So even though lower income households outnumber higher income ones 6:1, usage rates of the Lexus Lanes are basically the inverse - 1:6. That means, equalized for population, richer people are 36 times more likely to be SOV users than poorer people.


Posted by: WG on 25 Oct 07

If congestion tolled lanes are still congested that just means the tolls aren't high enough or the tolling method is bad. -In Singapore and other places tolls can be charged without the vehicles slowing up.

I don't understand: I thought one of the purposes of toll lanes was to increase transit use. Lower income people get to use heavily subsidised buses in low congestion lanes without paying the tolls. The higher income people who opt to pay the tolls thus help pay for improved bus service they aren't using. And the lanes are there to be driven by anybody (like mothers racing to daycare or workers afraid of getting fired for being late the second time this week, say).

In London, the "congestion charging scheme" lost money the first year but was still considered a success. Now, the company that administered the system for the first few years has been outbid by IBM. So there are ways to improve the bottom line.


Posted by: Tolboy on 29 Oct 07

If congestion tolled lanes are still congested that just means the tolls aren't high enough or the tolling method is bad. -In Singapore and other places tolls can be charged without the vehicles slowing up.

I don't understand: I thought one of the purposes of toll lanes was to increase transit use. Lower income people get to use heavily subsidised buses in low congestion lanes without paying the tolls. The higher income people who opt to pay the tolls thus help pay for improved bus service they aren't using. And the lanes are there to be driven by anybody (like mothers racing to daycare or workers afraid of getting fired for being late the second time this week, say).

In London, the "congestion charging scheme" lost money the first year but was still considered a success. Now, the company that administered the system for the first few years has been outbid by IBM. So there are ways to improve the bottom line.


Posted by: Tolboy on 29 Oct 07

I don't understand: I thought one of the purposes of toll lanes was to increase transit use. Lower income people get to use heavily subsidised buses in low congestion lanes without paying the tolls. The higher income people who opt to pay the tolls thus help pay for improved bus service they aren't using. And the lanes are there to be driven by anybody (like mothers racing to daycare or workers afraid of getting fired for being late the second time this week, say).

How would that work, Tollboy? Why would adding more vehicles to the diamond lane make it more likely that someone would use transit? There's no data to support the assertion that the tolls on I-394 are funding transit. In fact, it seems to be that the program, especially when accounting for new road construction it necessitated (which itself goes against the supposed logic that it would relieve congestion in the normal lanes), is in the red. Certainly I've never seen any data that shows there is now better or cheaper bus service on that corridor.

Plus, your use of the "working mom" example is again more cliche than what is typical. The MNPass program could easily require disclosure of certain demographic data and that could be correlated with actual use of the lane (which obviously they have precise data on) and they could easily then publish results on how equitable the lanes really are in terms of who is using SOVs on them. The term "HOT Lane" is actually a misnomer, since there's nothing "high occupancy" about a bunch of single occupancy vehicles.

All of these repeated assertions of Lexus Lane talking points can't make the facts disappear, nor do they do anything to help understand what's really going on. What's truly telling is that the "studies" on the lanes almost always focus on how to better sell the lanes (ie, convince people to accept them) rather than looking to see if they're actually doing a net positive for society. As in reality they are just a public giveaway to wealthy suburbanites, not a sustainable transportation solution, this is to be expected.

The whole frame of the Lexus Lanes is a red herring to begin with, since why should paying money be the metric for determining who gets to use their vehicles in the unused capacity of the lane? The libertarians at the Reason Foundation who concocted this idea (and their ideological comrades who have pushed it, including their co-option strategy of environmentalists by promising it will help fund transit and is a "congestion charge" when actually it isn't) are the same people who wish to gut government and hate taxes, yet here they are leeching off of a very expensive public asset bought with lots of tax dollars, which was enabled by the eminent domain powers of government (which they also hate). And, to top that off, they are the main thrust behind all the years of defunding transit and all other incentives to use those lanes, then they turn around and say, "Look, those lanes are being underused." Yeah, big surprise there, since they worked so hard to make it so.

Diamond lanes came into existence as part of clean air campaigns about 3-4 decades ago. Their intent was to reward things that lower air pollution, whether it be sharing rides (in carpools or in transit), using clean emissions vehicles, and/or driving high mileage/small footprint vehicles (like motorcycles).

If underutilized capacity is the problem, then one could just as easily give everyone transponders and open the lane to vehicles which are emitting the lowest amount of CO2 per person, or use space the most efficiently, or have the lowest tailpipe emissions, or use the least amount of fossil fuels. All of those things are social goods and help a community, and if one rewards such things, those things will become more common. Paying a buck or two for a toll rewards having more money than someone else.

Even if it did help put money into transit (which it doesn't), it still wouldn't be a good argument. How well transit is funded is an entirely separate issue from how to use roadway capacity best and how to incent things that benefit us all. Any money that might come from these Lexus Lane schemes would be a pittance in terms of transit funding, and certainly would never equal the amount that libertarians and their allies have gutted from transit throughout the years.


Posted by: WG on 30 Oct 07

Making transit funding in dependent, even in part, on drivers, will probably stifle attempts to move people from those roads to transit alternatives.


Posted by: Ben Schiendelman on 2 Nov 07

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