The Solution to Congestion

by Randal O'Toole

Though the West is well known as the land of wide open spaces, most westerners spend more time in traffic than they do enjoying the West's forests, plains, or other open spaces. Traffic congestion is the bane of city dwellers and a major promoter of sprawl, as people avoid congestion by moving further and further from the cities.

Yet construction of new highway capacity is both expensive and politically unpopular. Highways opponents argue that "we can't build our way out of congestion" because the roads become congested almost as soon as they are opened. Instead, they want to spend gas taxes and other highway dollars on light rail and other expensive transit projects that hardly anyone will use.

This is a peculiar position, somewhat like saying Ford should make Edsels instead of Taurases, or that Coca-Cola should stop making "classic Coke" and go back to the "new Coke." Highways are a heavily used government program whose very popularity is used as an argument against them.

The real problem with highways is not that they are used but that they are heavily used a few hours of the day and only lightly used at other times. It is far more expensive to build a highway system that accomodates rush hour traffic than to build one sufficient for average traffic volumes. It is this peak-hour expense that makes highway construction look like a black hole sucking up endless amounts of money.

The solution to rush-hour congestion is to take a leaf from other businesses that have peaks and troughs in their demand.

Such "congestion pricing" helps to moderate peak demands. Since it costs more to build peak capacity than average capacity, congestion pricing also insures that people get what they pay for and that those who don't use the system at peak times aren't subsidizing those who do.

Two successful new highways in Orange County and San Diego, California, use congestion pricing. During rush hour, motorists pay up to $3 to use the roads, but tolls fall to as little as 25 cents or even zero during non-rush hour periods. Car pools are encouraged by letting cars with three or more people use the roads at no charge.

The roads are paid for entirely out of the congestion tolls. Motorists who use them say that they save twenty to forty minutes per trip compared to nearby highways.

Congestion pricing can have a huge effect on rush hour traffic because nearly half the traffic during morning rush hours and more than half in afternoon rush hours is not commuter traffic. Congestion pricing will encourage many of the non-commuters to drive at other times of the day, thus reducing both peak demands and the cost of providing the highway system.

In today's electronic age, congestion pricing does not have to mean a toll booth. Instead, motorists get a transponder--a box that is little bigger than a credit card--that electronically records their highway usage. They can either get monthly billings or pay in advance, like a phone card, which will also insure their anonymity.

Westerners used to "freeways" have a strong resistence to tolls. There is a simple solution to this. Continue to maintain all existing roads through gas taxes and other highway user fees, as they are today. But use congestion tolls to pay for all expansions of urban highway systems. At the same time, reduce gasoline taxes by an amount equal to the share of the taxes that would have gone for new urban roads.

Under this system, new freeway lanes will be open to car poolers or people willing to pay a congestion toll. This will give urbanites a choice: Pay for your roads through a congestion toll, and get home fast; or pay through your gas taxes, and spend more time in traffic.

One of the most important laws of economics is that, "There is no such thing as a free lunch"--or a freeway. Congestion pricing is the best way to minimize traffic congestion and maintain the livability of western cities.

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