U.S. Funds Sought for D.C. Traffic Study

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

District officials have asked the federal government for $17.8 million to study ways to reduce traffic, including "congestion pricing" alternatives that could lead to tolls on city roads and bridges.

In a wide-ranging proposal to the U.S. Transportation Department, city officials also said they want to study adding taxes on downtown employee parking, increasing meter rates during prime times and making delivery trucks and tour buses pay to park.

Other cities, such as London and Stockholm, have lessened congestion and pollution by charging tolls on center city streets. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R) recently proposed a similar plan in Manhattan.

District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said last week that a London-style approach was a "good idea," but he stressed yesterday that there is no plan for tolls on bridges and highways.

"It's something that we would have to study, but we are very adamant about letting the public know that this plan is not even close to being a proposal," Fenty said. "There are other jurisdictions that do it, there are other people who are recommending that we look at it. We are always willing to look at ideas and proposals, but there are no proposals on the table."

D.C. Council Member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) proposed a plan Tuesday that would form a committee to look at charging commuters tolls to enter the city.

"We have at least 400,000 commuters coming to the District every day and at least 200,000 cars coming into the city, beating up our city, polluting our air, using our police and fire services when necessary, and not paying a nickel," Barry said yesterday.

District officials have long tried to tax commuters, but it has been opposed by Congress and the courts, which have ruled it unconstitutional. Barry said tolls would accomplish the same thing without a constitutional tussle.

Other lawmakers said Barry's proposal had scant chance of passing. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that congressional approval is doubtful but that Barry's bill could make for interesting debate. "It would be an academic exercise," he said.

Congestion pricing involves raising and lowering tolls based on traffic levels to ensure a constant flow. Transportation planners have embraced the concept as a way to encourage drivers to avoid rush hours -- when prices would be higher -- or to use mass transit.

In addition to the proposal to the federal government, the District is participating in a study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that is looking into congestion pricing on all Washington area highways as well as Potomac River crossings.

That study is scheduled to be completed in September, according to Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planner for the Council of Governments.

"In theory, there are a lot of arguments for [tolls], but the downside is that people would pay for something that they used to get for free," Kirby said, adding that "it's a tough thing to do politically. It was studied in London for decades."

The tolling study comes as Maryland is building a toll highway between Montgomery and Prince George's counties and is considering plans to put express toll lanes on parts of Interstate 270, the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95.

Virginia plans to build high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and convert carpool lanes on interstates 95 and 395 into toll lanes. The I-395 lanes would stop just short of the District line at the 14th Street Bridge.

Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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