4.8.10

PEOPLE RESPOND TO INCENTIVES. When fuel and tire taxes and general revenue funds aren't enough to pay for the roads, congestion pricing is the logical policy response.

Already plagued by the nation's third-worst traffic congestion with little hope of building a way out of gridlock, Chicago-area motorists need to seriously consider whether they're willing to pay more to avoid traffic jams, transportation experts say. A new study by the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Illinois Tollway suggests it's time for Chicago to embrace "congestion pricing."

The strategy imposes the supply-and-demand model on traffic conditions. Expressway motorists pay a fee - or a premium toll on the tollway -- to use a particular lane or lanes during peak-demand periods. The fee would vary, depending on traffic -- maybe about $5.39 for [law student Mario] Reed's commute on the inbound Stevenson -- and lane usage would be "managed" to guarantee steady traffic flow.

"The public understands that unpredictable traffic conditions make everyday driving like a game of roulette," said Joseph Schwieterman, an urban transportation expert at DePaul University. "Congestion pricing is about the only weapon we have in our arsenal to encourage more efficient use of our expressways [and tollways]."

Proponents say the strategy creates incentives to travel during less-crowded times, encourages carpooling and transit use, and cuts wasted time and money from motorists stuck in traffic. Congestion-priced lanes also have been shown to improve traffic flow in adjacent lanes, backers say.

To some extent, traffic conditions are more predictably bad than Professor Schwieterman would have readers believe. The absence of congestion pricing, however, attenuates the incentive employers and workers have to negotiate start and end times at work other than the standard eight to 4.30.

The idea of imposing more tolls on area drivers will be a tough sell, some believe. Many still bristle at paying for an Illinois Tollway bureaucracy they consider self-perpetuating.

But DePaul's Schwieterman said, "Worsening financial problems have pushed our backs to a wall, so policymakers have an incentive to listen."

Experts say morning rush hour traffic is expected to increase by more than 12 percent over the next 20 years, and the region's economic competitiveness and quality of life are at risk unless innovative strategies are implemented.

In its draft comprehensive plan for the region, Go to 2040, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning sounded the call for congestion pricing.

The strategy is vital because the region's highway system can't match population growth and because state and federal governments can't be relied on for enough money for new roads, said Randy Blankenhorn, the agency's executive director.

New revenue is needed to maintain and build expressways. The study suggests that congestion-pricing the Kennedy's reversible lanes could provide more than $23 million a year.

"Is everyone going to be happy with paying more? No," Blankenhorn said. "But money isn't going to continue to drop down on us from Springfield and Washington. ... Infrastructure is not free. We want to make it fair and user-based. Users should pay for the system."

That includes, by the way, the over-the-road truckers who avoid the time-of-day tolls by using the remaining U.S. and the state highways, slowing traffic on roads they progressively destroy. And congestion pricing might help put Passenger Rail on the track to self-sufficiency.

Since travel does not morally require government intervention, the second issue is easier to understand. Like food, computers, housing, and the many other goods and services that Americans enjoy in abundance, roads should be built and maintained by the private sector — for profit.

Legislators in Richmond and Annapolis should consider selling existing roads in the metropolitan area to private owners, and leave future road projects to be negotiated between roadbuilders and area landowners. This would have immediate and unexpected positive consequences.

That's the Future of Freedom Foundation, taking a libertarian stance on the provision of internal improvements.
First, gridlock would very likely become a thing of past. At present, the use of roads is effectively “socialized,” with everyone paying virtually the same amount for the roads despite how often or when he drives. Like any other publicly owned commodity, overuse becomes the norm.
It's more accurate to say "like any common-property resource." There is a price that will ration the use of a road, or of a canal, or of a camping area.

Profit-minded road owners, however, would want traffic to move smoothly to avoid osing paying customers. During peak travel times, the price for driving could go up to reflect increased demand, essentially pricing large numbers of potential drivers out of the market, freeing up road space, and cutting down on traffic jams. Fewer cars would also mean less automobile pollution — and better air quality.

The rising price of travel would undoubtedly increase the popularity of mass transit systems, as well. People will still need to travel, but Metro rail and bus services would appear much more attractive. Carpooling, too, would gain popularity to offset rising driving costs, and bicycle paths could be further developed. Walking might even make a comeback! In addition, urban sprawl might be slowed as demand for more localized housing escalated to avoid expensive commutes.

Left unsaid is whether the transit authorities would be able to raise sufficient revenue.

With government in charge, nothing is likely to change — at least not for the better. The issue is politicized, so competing “interests” constantly jockey for control to impose their view on everyone else. Passionate factions form, making progress nearly impossible. Meanwhile, the traffic snarls continue and commuter tempers rise.

Instead, local commuters should begin taking individual responsibility for their use of travel resources. Road users shouldn’t be forced to subsidize rail travel, and passenger-rail advocates shouldn’t have to pay for roads to be built.

Highways in the Washington-area could run smoothly and efficiently, Metro could (finally) turn a profit, and air quality in the region could radically improve, and all without any tax hikes or political battles. Private roads are the route forward. All that’s needed is the political will; the free market will show us the way.

It's refreshing to read a libertarian argument about transportation policy that recognizes the highway lobby as just another collective of rent-seekers. Total privatization of the roads will, however, involve transaction costs: do we have to re-live the era of robber barons on the Rhine?

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