Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Opinion: First Day of I-66 Tolls Provides Cautionary Tale On Congestion Pricing

On the first day in which "congestion priced" tolls were charged on I-66 inside the beltway, many motorists were surprised to see morning tolls spike at over $34, according to a report by WTOP news.

The new tolls fluctuated wildly during the day, with some morning commuters paying over $34 one way to travel just ten miles, and others paying just $8 for the same distance.

Some motorists believed they had been misled about what toll rates would be, given that previous reports claimed that "the high end of tolls on a typical day at around $9 at the busiest times".  WTOP reported that a local advocacy group, "The 66 Alliance", to claim Northern Virginia commuters had been sold a bill of goods: "The 66 Alliance calls on VDOT to suspend the I-66 toll program immediately and for the Virginia General Assembly to investigate VDOT, Secretary Layne and the I-66 toll program before the program is permitted to be re-launched" stated the group's press release.

Authorities in VDOT asserted the system was working as designed, stating "Overall, we were pleased, and things ran smoothly".

The tolls on I-66 follow a model of "Congestion pricing", in which tolls are raised or lowered based on the volume of traffic.  Congestion pricing is widely supported by the tolling industry, and by some quasi-government organizations who see it as a solution to obtaining funds without the need for legislators to be held accountable for raising gas taxes.  

However, as this and other instances show what can happen if motorists are given no say on what toll rates are set at and if lawmakers are shielded from responsibility for toll rates.  This is not the first time Virginia motorists have balked at fees which mysterious and fickle congestion pricing models have produced.  This past winter some motorists using the 495 express lanes near Vienna were stunned to learn that they had been charged $30 for a single trip due to the effects of a snow storm.

Motorists will likely not be given a seat at the table to determine whether congestion pricing will be used or whether another solution should be found.  Pilot studies into congestion pricing and the even more ambition idea of "vehicle mile traveled" (VMT) fees and have been conducted in the DC area.  Yet these pilots have revolved around how to SELL the idea to the public and how to go about introducing such fees, rather than taking seriously the concerns raised about them -- concerns not just about the fairness in the amount of fees, but also the enormous privacy concerns involved which broad ideas like the VMT fees raise.  Maryland is certainly going to see more congestion priced systems introduced in the future. The ICC already uses a form of congestion priced model, and the new regional toll lanes recently proposed by Governor Hogan are likely to be congestion priced.  And unlike gas taxes, toll rates are not set by the legislature so lawmakers need never have their votes on the amount of tolls recorded for the people to review.  In the past two years, legislation was introduced which would forbid the creation of a VMT tax in Maryland, a fee that would amount to creating congestion pricing on ALL roads, and the bill died in committee: Apparently some lawmakers in the Maryland House of Delegates wish to reserve the possibility of imposing congestion pricing on ALL existing roads in their back pocket for the future even if they don't want to talk about this openly.

Many believe congestion pricing is a good solution to solving a nearly unsolvable problem of traffic congestion, allowing people to decide the value of their own time spent sitting in traffic.  But there is a down side in that it actually provides a financial incentive for local and state governments NOT to spend our gas tax dollars or toll dollars providing pursuing other traffic congestion solutions and ensuring that those who cannot afford high tolls have an alternative, since Tolling companies and agencies will actually bring in more money the worse traffic gets. 

A WTOP poll of I-66 commuters seemed to show that most commuters did not believe the tolls had made their commutes better.  62% of respondents who used I-66 believed their commute had gotten "worse" or "significantly worse" since the tolling began, and only 25% thought it had made things better.  Only 11% of users stated they would consider using HOV, ostensibly the reason for having tolls for non-hov users, and 65% stated they would still drive but take other routes.  Some frustrated commuters have complained about a false narrative being presented by some officials that I-66 was previously HOV-only in order to paint those unhappy with the toll rates as "HOV cheaters" in order to deflect attention from claims of price gouging.  In fact I-66 was previously HOV-only during a very limited window of hours and a great many motorists were legally using this road outside the HOV-only window, which was greatly expanded when tolling began forcing motorists who could not afford the tolls onto already overcrowded arterial roads.  In fact plans are also on the books to tighten the screws on HOV-2 users by changing I-66 to HOV-3, possibly as soon as 2020, forcing many current carpoolers to either pay the tolls or find other routes.

Free market solutions are really good at solving many problems.  But diehard libertarians should bear in mind that toll roads are NOT free market solutions, they are government sanctioned monopolies.   An entrepreneur or fortune 500 company cannot simply come in and built their own road which offers a better rate.  As such, it is elected officials who should be responsible for ensuring that the maximum cost per mile is not allowed to be set too high, and held responsible if that is not done.  Left unchecked, massively high tolls provide an alternative fast route only for the very very wealthy, rather than funding new travel routes which actually provide some relief to taxpayer-financed commuter roads as some thought they were promised would happen.  Motorists with less extravagant budgets would be well advised to not wait to demand a bigger seat at the table in setting limits on tolls, if for no other reason than to ensure the wealthy have some actual skin in the game of solving traffic problems just like everyone else does.

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