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The Bumpy Road to Congestion Relief

Traffic approaches the Tysons Coner toll plaza on the Dulles Toll Road.
Traffic approaches the Tysons Coner toll plaza on the Dulles Toll Road. (By James M Thresher -- The Washington Post)
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By Fred Hiatt
Monday, April 14, 2008

Should you have to pay to drive on the Capital Beltway -- and on Interstate 270, the George Washington Memorial Parkway and all the bridges that cross the Potomac?

Many economists would say yes. The Bush administration would agree. A federally funded study completed last week lays out how much revenue such a tolling system would generate and how much it could reduce traffic congestion.

But if you don't like the idea, don't fire off any angry e-mails just yet. "Road pricing," long the arcane province of a few academics, has become technically feasible and politically at least not unmentionable. But it still generates tremendous suspicion and opposition, and not along the usual left-right dividing lines.

Just ask Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City. He assembled a coalition of environmentalists, business groups, subway riders and others to back what he called "congestion pricing," an $8 fee he would have charged anyone driving downtown during business hours. The Bush administration offered a $354 million incentive -- or bribe, to opponents -- to be used for public transit if the plan was adopted. But Democrats in the New York legislature killed the proposal a week ago.

"Many of us believe it's a regressive tax on the working class," Michael Benjamin, a Democratic legislator from the Bronx, told The Post's Keith B. Richburg. And when asked about a similar plan that has worked well in London, reducing congestion and throwing off funds to improve buses, he said, "Britain has been rationing things since 1945. In America, we don't ration things."

Economists would disagree, saying that Americans pay for space on the road -- just not in money. They waste more than 4 billion hours in traffic delays each year. They pay in lost time, bad air, stress, lowered health and skewed development patterns. A system that charged drivers to use the roads, with fares rising at peak times as high as necessary to keep traffic moving, would be more rational and efficient. As Chris Zimmerman, a Democrat on the Arlington County Board and an economist, says, "If the price of bread were zero, you wouldn't find bread on the shelves."

"I personally don't agree that the roads should be free," he added. "We should be subsidizing mass transit, which has all kinds of benefits, as opposed to roads, which have all kinds of costs."

But Zimmerman, who currently chairs Metro's board of directors, didn't embrace the new study from the National Capital Regional Transportation Planning Board, even though he heads the task force that authorized its work. His caution is understandable, given the political obstacles and legitimate questions.

Liberals focusing on climate change and smart growth tend to love road pricing. But liberals focusing on social inequities tend to believe that high-income taxpayers should pay for public amenities that are available to everyone.

Conservatives such as those in the Bush transportation department focus on the potential for private investment in road pricing schemes and the efficiency of market solutions. But Zimmerman notes that other branches of the same government -- the National Park Service, for example, which controls the George Washington Parkway -- aren't wild about the idea, and that commuters in the outer (red) counties, who believe they've already paid for the roads with their taxes, aren't either.

The reality is that road pricing is inevitable. It won't be a panacea, and the administration has unfairly burdened a good idea by supporting it while refusing to increase other revenue sources for transportation. The D.C. study showed that road pricing doesn't necessarily solve the revenue problem. Tolls on Maryland's intercounty connector (ICC), for example, should keep traffic flowing, but they won't come close to covering construction costs.

But congestion pricing is working in London, Stockholm and Singapore, and variable-rate tolls are coming to Washington on three projects already: new lanes on part of the Beltway in Virginia, new and converted lanes on Interstates 95 and 395 in Virginia and the entirely new ICC in Maryland. Tyler Duvall, acting U.S. undersecretary for transportation policy, says that technology could enable policies to ease concern about regressiveness; low-income drivers could receive a monthly credit on their windshield transponders.

And Duvall said that global experience shows that road pricing is far more popular once it's implemented than in anticipation, when many people just don't believe it can work.

"This is not an easy idea to sell," he admits. "But it's so much better than the alternative."

Something to think about while you're sitting, at no charge, on the Beltway tonight.

fred hiatt@washpost.com


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