Could American Roads Benefit from Congestion Tolls?

Congestion tolls have already been implemented in a number of cities, in the United States and abroad, as a way to relieve overcrowded cities of much of their congestion. San Fransisco is considered one of the first, as their one-way toll on the bay bridge in 1968. Today, you’ll find similar tolls in Singapore, London, Stockholm and Seoul, each with their own particular rules, exceptions, and limits. In many cases, the tolls amount to as much as $20 per day, far less than many people might pay for mass transportation into and out of the city.

The reasoning behind congestion tolls in major cities is a simple one. A person who works in a downtown area will have to pay for parking as well as the congestion toll to get to where they intend to go. As these costs can get quite high, that person will be more likely to use public transportation or car pool in order to save costs. This frees up space for tourism because tourists will be less impacted by the fee and will be more able to find parking spaces at popular venues. The result is less crowding in the city, increased opportunities for tourism dollars to flow into the city, and lower smog. Singapore’s system of congestion tolls has been in place since 1975, and though it has undergone numerous incarnations and revamps in its existence, it seems, for the most part, to work when taking Beijing into account, where drivers are required to win a “lottery” for licenses to be able to drive.

An argument for these congestion tolls is the relative increase in population density over time, as well as the large number of people who work in large cities. Combined with slowing funding for major road projects, it’s clear that as more and more of the population drive to work at 8 in the morning, traffic congestion is only going to get worse.

Arguments against congestion tolls include political promises of reduced taxation, considered a burden on working-class families, and the relative lack of safe, usable mass transportation to outlying suburbs. One example is the Highways surrounding Atlanta, Georgia. Marta train service runs throughout Fulton County, but doesn’t extend much beyond the perimeter highway, 285. Many of the residents of Gwinette and Rockdale county work in the downtown area, causing heavy traffic jams on Interstate 85 and 20.

Could congestion tolls alleviate some of these problems? Possibly. One solution that is being put forth in many areas is that of a HOT lane, or a High Occupancy/Toll lane. This would allow drivers who are by themselves in their cars who wish to use the diamond or high-occupancy lane to pay a toll for the privilege to do so. Drivers with the occupancy to travel in that lane would be exempt from such tolls.

Congestion tolls are in many ways inherently good, but there are also significant drawbacks that have to be considered, as well. While such a toll could potentially be used to improve the failing highway infrastructure in many large cities and boost the use of commuter rail transit, it would still be yet another hit to American wallets at a time when every penny counts.

Motor Trend Magazine: “Car Congestion Pricing: It’ll Cost You to Drive Here”; Todd Lassa; November 2011
U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration: “What is Congestion Pricing?”

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