The View of Congestion Pricing from Texas

Remember congestion pricing? It’s not much fun to think about what happened to that idea in New York last year. And considering the craziness
that’s been going on over bridge tolls in Albany, any kind of road
pricing in our fair city certainly seems like a non-starter for the
foreseeable future.

3185072987_0406df62ca_1.jpgTraffic in Austin. Photo by .nutter via Flickr.

But in Texas, Streetsblog Network member Austin Contrarian
is living up to his name with a post that holds out hope that
congestion pricing’s time is indeed coming, and considers some
practical issues of implementation:

Here’s the information problem:  The optimal
congestion toll should be set just high enough to achieve free-flow (45
mph) traffic. But if the toll is set too high, it will induce too many
drivers to shift to other times, routes or modes of transportation.
That’s bad, too (at
least if you ignore other externalities like pollution.)

Traffic
engineers can generally predict the high-demand days, but there’s a
fair amount of randomness in traffic patterns. Some days an unusually
large number of drivers just happen to drive to work at the same time.

The
optimal toll therefore should be variable — the greater the demand,
the higher the toll.  But that’s very hard to implement as a practical
matter. How do we get would-be drivers the information they need to
make timely decisions? There’s no point in raising prices on drivers
once they’ve entered the road; raising prices can no longer influence
their behavior (except perhaps to launch them into a homicidal
rampage). 

Price
changes might affect the behavior of drivers who are about to enter the
highway.  But they are just a fraction of the drivers targeted by
congestion pricing. Congestion prices are also intended to shift
drivers’ time of travel and mode of transportation. That requires
getting them the price in advance, in real time (via the Internet, for
example). But that, in turn, creates a real risk of herd behavior. If
the posted price is high, most drivers will respond by taking alternate
routes or leaving too late. If the posted price is low, drivers will
rush to their cars to take advantage of the low tolls, creating a
sudden surge in demand and unnecessary spikes in prices.  There’s a
sort of Heisenberg uncertainty principle at play.

Other good things from around the network: The Transport Politic digs deeper on Obama’s high-speed rail anouncement. Orange County Transit Blog reports bus riders there aren’t taking cuts lying down. And EcoVelo links
to a truly cool opportunity: you can help fund a bike-repair school in
Mauritania that’s being set up by a Peace Corps volunteer.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

SFCTA to Test Variable Road Pricing on Treasure Island

|
Treasure Island will serve as San Francisco’s proving grounds for road pricing that adjusts in response to traffic conditions, as the city looks to minimize Bay Bridge car congestion generated by residents expected to move to the development site. When the first housing units on the artificial mid-bay island, formerly owned by the Navy, are occupied in 2019, the SF County Transportation […]

Congestion Pricing: Vital for Funding a Sustainable Transpo Future in SF

|
Take a shot at budgeting San Francisco’s future transportation revenue with the new online “Budget Czar” simulator from the SF County Transportation Authority, and it will quickly become clear: If residents want better transit and safer streets for walking and biking over the next 25 years, the city needs to collect new sources of transportation revenue […]

GG Bridge Toll Hikes Approved 15-2, Supes Campos and Breed Opposed

|
When the plan for much-needed toll hikes on the Golden Gate Bridge was approved Friday, the only opponents on the GG Bridge Highway and Transportation District Board of Directors were Supervisors David Campos and London Breed. All other 15 members who voted, including Marin County reps, apparently understood the need to fund rising infrastructure costs for […]

Reporters, Upset Over Bridge Toll Increase, Get Weird And Whiny

|
Photo: Mrs. Gemstone The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area’s transportation planning body and the administrator of bridge tolls, managed a feat very nearly impossible today: They got the Bay Guardian and the Chronicle to agree on something. Namely, writers for both papers hate the idea of increased tolls on the region’s bridges starting […]