New York last month became the first U.S. city to approve charging motorists a premium to drive into congested city centers, and several other cities, including the District, are considering it. But The Post-Schar School poll finds the idea is widely unpopular, facing majority opposition among residents across the region, as well as among every major demographic group surveyed.
Opposition crests at 75 percent in Prince George’s County, and stands at 69 percent among those living in the outer suburbs of Manassas, Va., and Loudoun and Prince William counties.
In follow-up interviews, even residents who say they want relief from downtown’s chronic gridlock — which slows traffic to 15 miles per hour or less for several hours each day — do not want to pay tolls for it. Several said they fear it would amount to another tax with no guarantee of road improvements or better public transit. They also questioned how the tolls would be collected and spent, and how such a policy would affect low-income residents.
In New York, where details of the plan are still being worked out, drivers will have to pay to enter the central business district in Manhattan starting in 2021. The fees will not be set until next year, but reports citing traffic experts and state officials say they could be around $14 for cars and $25 for trucks during peak times. Tolls would be paid via E-ZPass transponders, and the money would be used to fix the city’s ailing subway.
The District has for years flirted with the idea of levying what many call a “commuter tax” on vehicles entering the city. A 2014 draft for a long-range transportation plan called for tolls at major entry points into the city, but the concept never went further than that — until this week, when the D.C. Council voted Tuesday to allocate nearly $500,000 for a congestion-pricing study.
“Traffic in the District is a constant inconvenience for District residents,” according to a May 2 budget report calling for an analysis of different pricing strategies. “The issue of excessive traffic may become even more pronounced” with the introduction of autonomous vehicles in the future, the report said.
The Post-Schar School poll finds that residents of the District and some parts of suburban Maryland and Virginia are slightly more supportive of the concept than the region as a whole. Support stands at 40 percent among residents in the District, Montgomery and Arlington counties, along with the cities of Falls Church and Alexandria. In Fairfax County, 37 percent support a toll, in line with 34 percent for the region overall.
Stephen S. Fuller, an economist and professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said low support for a congestion tax was unsurprising; people generally reject the idea of additional costs for their commutes.
“People that are commuting from long distances already see this as an onerous commute. They are paying $20 or more to park, they are paying tolls to come in in the morning, the gasoline prices are $3 a gallon,” Fuller said. “Anything else, it doesn’t matter what it is. … they might reject it.”
Engineer Stephen Geraci, 36, who commutes twice a week from his home in Loudoun to downtown Washington, said the cost of his trip after using the Dulles Toll Road and the 66 Express Lanes can add up to $30, depending on how high the tolls on the express lanes are running on a particular day. Tolls for the 10 miles of express lanes between the Capital Beltway and District line have hit as high as $47.50.
“If I have to pay more, even if it’s a few dollars, it is going to hurt,” Geraci said. Congestion pricing would just encourage workers to seek jobs outside the District, he said. “It just seems like one more unnecessary tax.”
Geraci said there are also too many questions about how such a system would work. Would toll booths be set up on every bridge and streets leading into downtown? Would it create bottlenecks elsewhere as drivers try to stay outside the tolled perimeters?
“I want to know what the revenue is going to be used for,” Geraci said.
Richard Ransom, 58, an IT technical manager, commutes from Beltsville, Md., to Springfield. But he attends Nats games regularly and said having to pay a toll to enter the city would make things tougher for visitors. The city is already unfriendly to drivers, with high parking fees and scarce curbside parking, he said.
“Now you want to tax me to have the privilege to come into the District?” he said. “No, absolutely not.”
But freelancer David Mackoff, 60, of Northwest Washington, who drives half the time and uses transit the other half, said congestion pricing could be helpful during special events that draw huge crowds and nightmarish traffic, such as the Cherry Blossom Festival and the annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree.
“I am all for getting more people on the Metro,” he said. “I think [congestion pricing] is good for the city. It’s good for people walking around. It’s good for the environment. And if the money is used purposefully, that’s a good thing, too.”
More than half of residents (56 percent) who commute using public transportation say they oppose congestion pricing, compared with 65 percent among those who drive.
There is even less support among African American, Asian and Hispanic residents. Collectively, 67 percent are against the idea, compared with 57 percent of white residents.
The Post-Schar School poll finds majority support for another rush-hour proposal — transforming the travel lane on busy streets into a dedicated bus lane. A 56 percent majority of D.C.-area residents say they support bus-only lanes, and 39 percent oppose such a switch.
Support for bus-only lanes during rush hour is highest in the District at 66 percent, but more than half of residents in the Maryland (55 percent) and Virginia (54 percent) suburbs also support the idea. Opinion is more evenly split among those who commute by car: 50 percent support it and 46 percent oppose it. Among those who commute using public transportation, however, 71 percent support the idea.
The results suggest that a majority of area residents favor growing the region’s network of bus lanes, a proposal being weighed as part of an areawide study on how to make bus service more reliable for the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on it and more attractive to lure new riders. Transit experts and advocates say dedicated lanes could help solve chronic problems such as crowding, bunching and delays.
“The bus shouldn’t be late if they had their own lane,” said Lorenzo Fludd, 28, of Oxon Hill, Md., who takes two buses to get to work at National Harbor. Traffic is so bad, he said, that buses are rarely on time.
“It’s a problem,” said Fludd, who does not own a car. “If one bus is late, it will cost me to miss the other bus.”
Elizabeth Thompson, 33, an event planner from Capitol Hill, said bus lanes could benefit bus commuters as well as drivers like her who often find themselves entangled with bus traffic.
“You end up with terrible pockets of congestion because these buses don’t have a space to go to, or they are not properly pulling into the bus pickup and drop-off area,” said Thompson, who commutes to the Palisades area of the District. “A bus lane would be amazing.”
D.C.-area residents have less enthusiasm for switching a rush-hour lane into a dedicated bike lane. Fifty-five percent oppose converting a travel lane into a bike lane during rush hour, while 42 percent say they support such a policy.
The low support for replacing a driving lane with bike lanes comes as residents rank the need to improve roads and reduce traffic congestion at the top of transportation priorities they would like Washington-area leaders to address. Thirty-two percent say leaders should focus on “improving the condition of roads” and 28 percent say the focus should be on “reducing traffic on roads.” Improving the Metrorail ranks third, with 20 percent, followed by improving bus service, making it easier to bike places and making it easier to walk places, which each get 4 percent.
Andrea Ottmann, 39, a cyclist from Ashburn, Va., said bike lanes would help address concerns about congestion and road conditions because more people would choose to bike.
“Biking could be an option for people,” said Ottmann, a stay-at-home mom who bikes with her children and would like to be able to use bike lanes to get to trails. “It is kind of scary for bikers,” she said. “I think it helps if they do have a lane.”
But Ransom, the Prince George’s resident who opposes congestion pricing, said adding bike lanes to city streets, especially in places like the District, could make things even more dangerous for cyclists. Most drivers, for example, don’t know how to navigate around the lanes, he said.
“I am sorry, but when you’ve got cars in those little narrow streets you can’t create bike lanes,” he said. “There’s no room for that.”
Bike-only lanes receives the most support among people who cycle or use public transit, according to the survey. Roughly 6 in 10 commuters who use public transportation support the idea, as do a similar share of those who rode a bike to get somewhere in the past year (56 percent).
About 6 in 10 people who drive to work — the vast majority of D.C.-area commuters — oppose switching travel lanes to bike lanes during rush hour. D.C. residents are slightly more likely to support a switch (50 percent) than those in the close-in suburbs — 42 percent in Maryland and 40 percent in Virginia.
The Post-Schar School poll surveyed a random sample of 1,507 adults living in the Washington area and was conducted by telephone from April 25 to May 2. Seventy-five percent of interviews were conducted on cellphones and 25 percent on landlines. Results from the full sample have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.