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Seattle study shows positive impact of variable tolls

April 25, 2008
Congestion-based or time-of-day variable road tolling can bring more balance to transportation supply and demand, according to a just-released study

Congestion-based or time-of-day variable road tolling can bring more balance to transportation supply and demand, according to a just-released study by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) of Washington State. The Council received a grant from the Federal Highway Administration to conduct a pilot project to see how travelers change their travel behavior (number, mode, route, and time of vehicle trips) in response to variable charges for road use.

According to PSRC, the “Traffic Choices Study” is the most comprehensive conducted of demand response to network tolling. It found that tolls resulted in a number of changes in travel demand. These included a 7% reduction in vehicle trips per week, a 12% reduction in vehicle miles traveled per week, an 8% reduction in minutes of driving per week, and a 13% reduction in miles driven on tolled roads per week, when measured across all types of travel purposes and all study participant households.

The study concluded that “road tolling, based on charges that vary by time of day or amount of congestion, lets people know that they are imposing uncompensated costs on others, and that they are contributing to the poor performance of existing road capacity. It is appropriate that these users contribute the greater portion of the funding required to improve the supply. By failing to price road use under congested conditions, current policy prematurely justifies new capacity and, simultaneously, limits the fiscal capability to respond. The absence of congestion tolls leads to time wasted stuck in traffic, an overstatement of investment needs, and fiscal disarray. Congestion-based tolling can not only turn stop-and-go congestion into flowing traffic; it can also generate revenue and give signals to road operators about where travelers think trips are important enough that they are willing to pay for road improvements.”

However, initial responses to the study findings have not been universally positive. Many area residents interviewed by local radio and television stations expressed their “outrage,” at the tolling recommendations, stating that they would unfairly burden poorer drivers and add a new layer of fees to the “tolls in the form of taxes” already paid to build the roads. Others said the taxes on fuel and the fees for vehicle licensing were already excessive.

The project placed Global Positioning System (GPS) tolling meters in the vehicles of about 275 volunteer households. It observed driving patterns before and after experimental tolls were charged for the use of all the major freeways and arterials in the Seattle metropolitan area for approximately 18 months per household. Participants were given a travel budget (or “endowment account”) from which tolls were deducted. If their driving patterns remained unchanged over the experiment, they would “spend” their account balance by the time the experiment concluded. If they changed their driving patterns to reduce the amount of driving on toll roads, they would keep the difference.

All project materials will be made available online at: www.psrc.org. Information is also available now at: http://psrc.org/projects/trafficchoices/reports.htm

The American Trucking Assns. (ATA) has been an opponent of all congestion pricing. The trucking lobby has said that congestion pricing hurts truck drivers because they cannot change delivery and shift times and are being charged an additional fees for highway use that ultimately will result in an increase in costs to businesses and consumers.

ATA president & CEO Bill Graves spoke out earlier this month against New York City’s proposed congestion pricing plan. "Like many areas of the United States, New York’s transportation networks are strained, and the city is searching for a solution to its problem," he said. "But congestion pricing schemes are unfair, ineffective and ignore our real transportation needs. While there is a need to heavily invest in infrastructure, congestion pricing does little to relieve congestion and is merely a revenue raiser."

“We mirror the policy of the ATA on the issue,” Jim Tutton, vp of the Washington Trucking Assn., told FleetOwner. He added the group supports tolling for some construction of new projects—but not congestion pricing.

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