A price tag on congestion
The research organization TRIP finds that traffic congestion comes at a steep price for drivers in the Washington, DC area. They determine that congestion and poor road conditions cost drivers $2,195 annually in lost time and the added vehicle operating costs of driving on congested, poor quality roads.
TRIP supports increased infrastructure spending, and I haven’t looked into their methodology, but undeniably DC-area drivers waste copious time sitting in traffic. Despite this, a Washington Post poll finds that Maryland drivers do not support higher taxes to pay for road expansion or maintenance. Perhaps increased taxes are unpopular because state residents believe that transportation projects involve wasteful spending that won’t improve conditions for drivers. Additionally, they may realize that traffic congestion is very difficult to overcome in a world of zero-price roads. Because additional roads lower the time cost of driving, additional lanes induce more people to drive farther. Building enough roads to eliminate congestion for everyone who would like to use them at zero-price in DC’s rush hour might not be possible, as reducing the region’s congestion problems would even lead more people to move to the area.
An alternative to raising taxes to fund new road construction would be to implement congestion pricing on area roads. Roads could be electronically tolled and priced at the rate that will eliminate congestion, varying with driver demand. So far municipalities have tended to implement congestion pricing on new highways. Here in the DC area, the 495 Express Lanes opened in November with congestion pricing. The new lanes were funded primarily by a private company, and the tolls are not yet meeting revenue projections; many drivers are choosing to continue driving on more congested, zero-price roads. However, congestion pricing doesn’t necessarily need to be implemented on a new road. Alternatively, policymakers could implement congestion pricing on existing roads or on specific lanes to reduce congestion for those willing to pay.
Tolls are often politically unpopular because, as Donald Shoup points out in The High Cost of Free Parking, people are often very opposed to paying user fess for a provision that has previously been funded by taxpayers broadly. However, the gains from congestion pricing may outweigh the political costs. Allocating road use through prices puts roads to higher-value uses. Assuming that TRIP’s estimate of the cost of congestion is correct for the average driver, this cost will vary widely among drivers who value their time differently, and drivers will value their own time differently depending on the day and the importance of being on time to their destination. Thus pricing roads according to demand allows those who have flexible schedules to drive when roads are otherwise uncrowded, and those who place a high value on their time will be willing to pay a high toll for the convenience of saving time and reaching their destination promptly.