This past week, the Post had a story on proposed toll rates for the ICC, which at 20 cents to 35 cents per mile are somewhat higher than typical tolls elsewhere in the regoin and the nation. From a broad perspective, this is a good thing; the more people get used to paying to use roads the better. And the more people associate tolled roads with congestion-free roads the better.
But from a regional perspective, there are two problems worth mentioning, both of which center on the fact that to do this right, you really need to toll comprehensively at the regional level. The first problem is that it’s not efficient to toll one or a few roads while leaving others unpriced (and it undermines the extent to which tolling of new roads can pay for new construction). If the argument for the ICC is that it will relieve congestion on alternate east-west routes, then the thing to do is toll existing east-west routes and use that revenue to build additional east-west capacity (with the proviso that the new road should be tolled at a level sufficient to prevent congestion).
In the ICC case, that would involve tolling, among other things, I-70, the Beltway, portions of I-270 and I-95, and a smattering of other arterials. Such tolls would raise a lot of money, and would have a much larger congestion reducing effect than construction of a tolled ICC (which, when built, would then be able to charge lower toll rates).
The difficulty with this is that if one were to toll the roads that are currently heavily congested, build a new exurban highway like the ICC, and add little to no new capacity along the currently congested corridors, then that would tend to push travel and settlement outwards. What this tells us isn’t so much that tolling currently congested roads rather than new roads is a bad idea, but rather that the ICC was a poorly conceived project. The first priority should have been the creation of new capacity along the main, congested corridors. Tolling of the northern arc of the Beltway would boost expected ridership of a circumferential transit line of some sort considerably — enough to support heavy rail along that route. Meanwhile, tolling of I-270 and I-95 (and the BW Parkway) would raise a lot of money for improvements in commuter rail services, and potentially local serving transit, along those corridors.
Having addressed the pressing congestion concerns along existing corridors, new corridors can be better evaluated. There may well be room for better east-west connections between I-270 and the I-95 corridor. But given the region’s other needs, the ICC route should have been given a relatively low priority.
The second problem is that the absence of regional application of tolls makes it more difficult to address distributional concerns. With the ICC, there’s no good way to do a transit component at this time, and there’s no good way to refund a portion of the revenues to lower income users. If tolling is adopted on a regional basis, however, then the highest tolls will be in denser areas where transit either already exists or might profitably be added. And since the whole of the region’s transportation network would be covered by user fees, a portion of transportation revenues could be used to subsidize transportation expenses for lower income households. Rather than trying to identify low income users of one or two tolled roads and making them eligible for a rebate of some sort, you simply make all of the region’s low income households eligible for discounted transit fares, or offset taxes, or a simple wage subsidy.
The big barrier to doing this is the fractious nature of local government in most metropolitan areas. One would either have to do most of this at the federal level, or create and empower metropolitan authorities to do some of these things, or negotiate the adoption of complementary policies by all the relevant local bodies. Not easy, or likely to happen, unfortunately.