New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to charge drivers for downtown access during peak traffic times, a form of “congestion pricing,” died in the state’s legislature in April. But the practice of giving drivers a financial incentive to choose their drive times carefully lives on in various forms in other cities across the nation. Variable pricing — charging to use designated lanes, or in some cases all lanes, of a highway during peak periods — is both an old and new idea. San Diego has used variable pricing for more than 10 years, and Seattle kicked off a pilot program in April. Chicago also is trying a related technique for downtown parking. The end goal of each is to reduce traffic jams that cost commuters and businesses more as cities continue to grow.
Bloomberg’s proposal was a type of congestion pricing known as “cordon” pricing, which has found success in London and Stockholm, Sweden. If the New York plan had been approved, the city would have charged most car drivers $8 and truck drivers $21 to drive into the city’s downtown at certain times of the day. “If you enter the central business district of London [at peak daytime traffic hours], you pay a $25 fee,” says Jack Basso, director of management and business development for the Washington-based American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The city’s traffic levels have dropped 15 percent and travel delays have decreased 30 percent since the program began in 2003, according to “Congestion Pricing: A Primer” by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHA).
Many lawmakers from New York’s outer boroughs and suburbs opposed Bloomberg’s proposal, saying it unfairly targeted commuters, who make up most of their constituency. The failure of the legislation will cost the city nearly $500 million annually in federal money for public transportation improvements and $354 million in immediate federal funds. “The idea for congestion pricing didn’t start in our administration, and it won’t end today,” Bloomberg said in a statement following the state’s action. “The $354 million we would have received from Washington tomorrow will go to another city in another state.”
In 2003, congestion in the top 85 U.S. cities caused 3.7 billion hours in delays and wasted 2.3 billion gallons of fuel, for a total cost of $63 billion, according to FHA’s primer. It costs peak period drivers $1,100 a year in wasted time and fuel, says Jim Ray, FHA’s acting administrator and deputy administrator. “Those are real dollars out of real people’s pockets, and it’s an increasing problem … it’s increasing at a dramatic rate,” he says.
The purpose of congestion pricing is to encourage drivers to change their driving habits. “To make the system go from a place where it doesn’t work to a place where it plainly does work, you need to move 8 to 12 percent [of drivers] off [the roads],” Ray says. “You need to bring a more rational use of the system using flexibility that exists in [people’s] daily lives to make alternative transportation choices or making those trips at different times.”
The physical methods used to implement congestion pricing can vary but usually involve the conversion of high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, which are reserved for carpools, into high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. While HOT lanes remain free to carpoolers with two or more people in the vehicle, individual drivers also can pay to use HOT lanes, Basso says. “If you have the electronic equipment on those HOT lanes, which you almost always have to in order to make them work, then you have the ability to vary the tolls and, therefore, [implement congestion pricing],” he says.
HOT times in San Diego
In 1996, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) in San Diego County, Calif., was one of the first two agencies in the country, along with Orange County, Calif., to install “managed” lanes — which eventually became HOT lanes, says Derek Toups, associate regional planner and project manager for the HOT lanes program on Interstate 15. “The HOV lanes were operating well under capacity,” Toups says. “Maybe 30 to 50 percent of the capacity was being used, and there was a lot of push from the community to open those lanes back up for general purpose use.”
Initially, the project operated as a monthly permit program, with windshield decals issued to participating drivers for unlimited trips in the lanes by single occupants. The decals changed color every month to aid enforcement. By 1998, SANDAG installed an electronic toll collection system that replaced the decal system and allowed for per-trip pricing, including variable charges for peak hours.
SANDAG is the first agency in the world to implement “dynamic pricing,” which adjusts toll rates depending on the amount of traffic on a given roadway. Intelligent transportation systems constantly measure traffic flow and the number of vehicles traveling on the road. The toll rates go up when traffic is high and down when traffic is less.
In the near future, along with expanding the HOT lanes from a two-lane, eight-mile stretch to four lanes along 20 miles of the highway, SANDAG will begin to incorporate into the toll rates the value of travel time saved by using the managed lanes based on average wages and fuel consumption. The new algorithm will compare travel time on general-purpose lanes to travel time on the managed lanes, Toups says.
Along with relieving congestion in the I-15 corridor, the managed lanes generate new revenue for transit projects. “We’ve generated and passed through about $7.5 million to the local transit operator in the last decade to use for transit operations in the I-15 corridor,” Toups says.
The dynamic pricing system assures that the managed lanes are moving at least 55 miles per hour or faster, a benefit for the area’s bus rapid transit system. “That’s really good from a transit perspective, because it’s a dedicated guideway for the express bus,” Toups says. “If the guideway is always freely flowing, that means the buses will stay on time and be competitive with the cars.”
SANDAG’s 30-year regional transportation plan includes the construction of more than 85 miles of managed HOT lanes on Interstates 15, 5, and 805, as well as State Route 52. “The network of managed lanes that we are planning to design and build should be complete in the next 15 to 20 years,” Toups says.
Seattle pilot program rolls out
As San Diego continues to expand its managed lanes, Washington has begun a pilot HOT lane program in the Seattle area. Like San Diego’s project, Seattle’s springs from under use of the city’s existing HOV lanes. In 2005, the Washington legislature authorized the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to convert HOV lanes on State Route 167, where an average of 110,000 cars pass daily, into HOT lanes for a pilot program, says Patty Rubstello, project manager. ”By allowing people to buy in to use that extra capacity, it frees up space in the other lanes, which will help them flow better,” Rubstello says.
There are six entry locations for the HOT lane going northbound and four in the southbound lanes. The entry points are marked by dotted lines, and toll verification equipment is located at each entry point. While the lane is still free for carpoolers, a light activates at each roadside gantry where the tolls are charged to indicate that the driver is a paid HOT lane user and does not have to stop to pay the toll. “State Patrol has to be out there in the corridor counting heads in the car to see if there’s more than two people,” she says. “If the light doesn’t go off, then [the troopers] need to do their normal HOV enforcement.”
The fees range from 50 cents to $9, but the average toll collected is between $1 and $1.25, she says. The HOT lanes’ tolls will cover operational costs, including lane enforcement and increased incident response teams.
WSDOT is considering a variable pricing project on State Route 520, a heavily traveled commuter corridor between Seattle and Microsoft’s base in Redmond, Wash. Commuters would pay in both directions, with higher pricing in peak hours, such as 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. “We’re hoping to get tolling authorization next year to actually implement [the Route 520 project],” Rubstello says.
Windy City puts it in park
Variable pricing does not have to be applied to cars in motion. Having received a $153.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in April, Chicago will use some of the money to control where cars park downtown by charging higher on-street parking rates for peak hours. “Obviously, you’ll have fewer uses [of the parking spaces] at the peak hours when traffic capacity needs are greatest, and greater use of the spaces when traffic capacity is lower and can accommodate it,” says Brian Steele, director of communications for the Chicago Department of Transportation.
Whichever method is used, Ray says congestion pricing is the most effective way to keep peak hour traffic flowing freely. “This is about America’s competitiveness; this about individual businesses’ competitiveness; this is about quality life; this is about the American dream,” he says. “[America’s roadway system] is part of the backbone that makes this country work, and to the extent it’s not working, we all suffer.”
— Ed Brock is the associate editor for American City & County.