Does it Pay to Charge?

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No one wants to pay to travel.  But if it means less traffic and quicker travel times, I could get on board with the idea.  In fact, I am on board.  I live in Montgomery County, Maryland where I have access to the recently opened MD 200, the Intercounty Connector, or ICC as it’s more commonly called.  This newly created highway connects various parts of Montgomery County to the northwestern parts of Prince George’s County in addition to several other highways, including Interstate 95.  Prior to the opening of ICC, these areas were only connected by busy major roads, complete with rush hour, traffic lights, school buses, Metro buses and accidents which, at times, would shut down roads.  The ICC is convenient to access and easy to use.  Fares, which vary based on the time of day, are paid via E-ZPass, which makes getting on and off the ICC virtually seamless.

MnPass, a very similar but slightly different system, offers for-pay travel for solo drivers on high occupancy vehicle lanes on two highway systems in the Minneapolis, Minnesota region.  Like the ICC, MnPass has a variable toll rate based on current traffic conditions and where trips start and end.  The lanes are free during off peak hours and for cars with more than one person and transit vehicles.  While fares are collected electronically, it is not via a nationally-used system such as E-ZPass.  The transponder for the MnPass system is available from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and costs drivers $1.50 a month to lease.  Still, the region is seeing a favorable response to the MnPass system in its usage and impact on congestion.

Charging for car travel – whether it is by tolling or congestion pricing – is fast becoming a way to manage traffic and generate revenues to operate and maintain transportation systems.  Drivers who do not want to pay to use the more congested routes can choose other modes of travel, such as transit or other roads, as is being demonstrated in Maryland and Minnesota.

But it doesn’t always work or have the desired implications.

Look at the floating bridges in the Seattle region, two bridges connecting similar areas, one free and one fee-based.  Once the toll was instituted on one of the bridges, traffic on that bridge dropped 40%.  However, traffic on the other bridge rose 10%.  Perhaps not the desired outcome?  As the author in this article about the Seattle bridges points out, charging for driving isn’t a burdensome tax, it’s an at-will fee for the use of a premium service.  The benefits of this method can impact the user, the collector of the fee (to use that to reinvest in the transportation system) and non-users who would presumably be traveling on less congested roads because there are people willing to pay to use other roads with the same access.  But in Seattle, this wasn’t the case, as the toll bridge just pushed traffic from one bridge to another.

It comes down to an argument of effectiveness – is tolling always a good option for managing traffic?  You would think so.  But when a cheaper (free!) option is so readily available (like the competing Seattle bridge), who would agree to pay?  And when it’s so blatantly in your face, it raises the issue of equity.  Is it fair to provide people who can afford to pay a toll with a reduction in congestion and punish those who can’t with more traffic?

There is no universal answer, and the effectiveness and equity of tolling options must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  This video clip, for example, makes the argument that while it is seemingly an unfair system, the generated revenues from the toll go back into the system to create benefits across the board for all users in the form of road repairs and improved maintenance to name a few.

But at the end of the day users will ultimately go with whatever option is most convenient for them – whether it is in the form of time or cost savings.