Pay to roll

Anyone who's spent time behind the wheel of a truck knows what a waste of time sitting in traffic can be. But nowhere is the extent of the impact of congestion so clear as when we quantify the toll it exacts on our economy. The Texas Transportation Institute, which has tracked congestion for decades, now puts the national cost at $62.3-billion annually. More important, however, is that it's getting

Anyone who's spent time behind the wheel of a truck knows what a waste of time sitting in traffic can be. But nowhere is the extent of the impact of congestion so clear as when we quantify the toll it exacts on our economy. The Texas Transportation Institute, which has tracked congestion for decades, now puts the national cost at $62.3-billion annually.

More important, however, is that it's getting worse: “Congestion has grown everywhere in areas of all sizes,” the 2004 Urban Mobility Report noted. “Congestion occurs during longer portions of the day and delays more travelers and goods than ever before.” And according to Martin Wachs, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley: “Congestion is getting worse and costing us more every year. There are just no more roads to build.”

Transportation experts around the world have come to the same conclusion. Even when land is available — and in most cases it's not — it is too expensive to buy and construct new roads, especially in urban and suburban areas. To push matters even further, as vehicles become more energy efficient, fuel taxes, the traditional source of road-building funds, are declining. “Fuel taxes are in a death spiral,” states John Charles, acting president of the Portland-OR-based Cascade Policy Institute, a free market think tank. “We need a new way to fund highways.”

In 1918, Oregon authorities instituted the first fuel tax, designing it to be a user fee so only drivers (then a relatively small number of people) paid for new roads. Most people no longer think of fuel taxes as a user fee, but rather as a tax that does little to help congestion or build new roads.

However, a non-tax plan that is catching on worldwide offers a way to relieve congestion and perhaps build some new roads where possible, such as on interstate medians.

Congestion pricing, also called value pricing, is a system in which vehicles pay a premium to travel during heavy traffic times and less during off-peak times.

In February 2004, the largest and most extensive congestion-pricing scheme took place in London. Vehicles paid a flat fee between 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. during weekdays and less at other times. The results were startling: Traffic speeds increased 37% and congestion dropped 40% during peak times as many commuters switched to mass transit.

But in California, where mass transit is less of a factor, results are also impressive. The 91 Express Lanes, a toll road built on the median of the Riverside Freeway, opened in 1995. This private road offers dozens of different toll charges based on time of day and day of the week, and tracks congestion in real-time to alleviate jams.

The road has saved commuters more than 32-million hours of driving time and added about $480 million in revenue to the region, road officials claim. Unfortunately, trucks are not permitted on this road.

The best North American model for congestion pricing that encompasses both truck and car traffic is Ontario's 407 Express Toll Route. On privately owned 407 ETR, trucks must use transponders but other vehicles may use them or have their vehicle license plate picture taken and be billed by mail at a higher “video rate.” This makes the road a truly open, value-priced highway based on trip distance, time of day and transponder use.

The U.S. lags other countries in congestion pricing. One reason is that although FHWA advocates such pricing schemes, in 2003 it spent only $4.5-million on pilot programs.

Another reason is that federal agencies have done nothing to assure users that they will not be double-taxed by tolls on currently free roads in addition to paying fuel taxes. “We can't accept new tolls without new capacity,” says Darrin Roth, director of highway operations at ATA. “We're against paying double taxes.”

According to DOT figures, it costs about $1.18 a minute to operate a truck, so every second stuck in traffic hits the bottom line. Moving to a toll-based transportation road system could save time, money and move freight more efficiently based on pure market forces instead of artificially priced taxes. “We'd like to see all highways converted to tolls and get rid of fuel taxes,” says Charles. “We'd also like to see [congestion pricing] toll roads eventually pay for separate truck lanes.”

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