The big obstacle to passing a new, comprehensive transportation bill is the lack of agreement over a source of financing. The traditional source of funding for federal transportation programs is the gas tax, which, as we all know, hasn’t been increased since 1993, which means its real value has fallen considerably. And, it seems to be taken as given that any new increase is unthinkable, although I’m not sure why. Of course, there are other potential funding sources out there, like, say, tolling. But:

During a discussion on the massive financing gap that is bogging down the next transport bill, Oberstar also pooh-poohed the prospects of tolling interstate highways built during the road program’s postwar heyday. Pennsylvania is currently pushing for federal approval to add tolls to an existing interstate.

“We’re not going to allow tolling of the interstate highway system,” Oberstar said. “It’s already been built and paid for.”

Built, yes. Paid for, no. The trouble with roads, you see, is that you have to repair the damn things, which requires money. And the federal government is currently raising nowhere near enough money to handle that task, let alone invest in ambitious new infrastructure projects.

But I continue to be bothered by the way in which legislators, among many others, view tolling — as a revenue-raiser and nothing more. Revenue needs aside, tolling to reduce congestion would be a very good thing. It would lead to a more efficient use of the roads we have. Congestion is annoying and wasteful, but it’s also economically costly. Tolling roads is the surest way to reduce the problem.

The lack of imagination on this issue among politicians has become extremely frustrating to me. Metro is currently faced with all sorts of difficult funding decisions. It’s cutting services and facing costly delays thanks to a backlog of capital investments, due to funding shortfalls. Meanwhile, downtown Washington during rush hour is a mess. The region’s major highways are, at almost any time, a mess. Congestion is perpetual. Tolling of central business areas and major highways could meaningfully reduce congestion while generating enough money to significantly increase and improve transit service. Politicians struggling to figure out how to fund Metro should just walk down to 14th Street near the Potomac at 5 on a Friday, or to I-270 in Maryland at basically any time. The money is sitting right there, in the form of red brake lights as far as the eye can see.

Advocation for congestion pricing instantly generates complaints about regressivity. I find this argument to be extremely short-sighted. No one would benefit more from congestion-priced streets and highways than bus riders. Bus service could be increased immediately upon adoption of a tolling regime, and trips would become much faster, much more comfortable, and much more predictable in a world with congestion pricing. With increased demand for bus services, you might even be able to reduce bus fares — perfectly justifiable given the reduction in congestion produced by a shift from driving to bus-riding.

Some very small subset of poor commuters would find themselves in a situation in which they might not be able to find a transit option to their destination and would be forced to pay the congestion toll. Even then, they’d be getting something for their money — more time to spend with family or at work thanks to reduced congestion and less dough spent on gas burnt while idling in traffic. But it’s not inconceivable that some would wind up a little worse off.

For this, we’d sink the whole enterprise? The bottom line is that ubiquitous congestion creates a significant and persistent drag on metropolitan economic performance, which impacts everyone in the metropolitan labor market. It makes businesses less efficient and consumer goods more expensive, all of which ultimately impacts things like job creation and income growth. And any other mechanism for solving these problems is likely to be costlier, less efficient, and less effective.

The issue is somewhat less clear-cut within metro areas without transit. But for the inflexibility of their transportation networks, they should face a gas tax surcharge. In their way, they’re already punishing the poor by providing such a limited set of alternatives to automobile ownership.

It just drives me nuts to watch politicians bang their heads against the wall trying to find money for transportation projects while their roads are perpetually congested. And it drives me just as nuts to watch people complain about the regressivity of a congestion toll while actual poor people who can’t afford cars end up stuck in the same congestion, inside buses that are poorly maintained and run on infrequent, unpredictable routes. These problems are easily solvable. Politicians just need to get over the paralyzing fear of asking commuters to pay even a little more for the privilege of driving.


  1. sxse says:

    Maybe, one solution to this problem is to give the infrastructure support back to the automobile manufacturers. It will give them something to do anyway …maybe they will even find a way to make a profit at it. They can toll their competitors at higher rates. Let the market sort it out. Like CSX and Norfolk-Southern do.

  2. anon says:

    ” But it’s not inconceivable that some would wind up a little worse off.”

    Really? When Republicans make fun of Democrats as out of touch elitists, you’re the poster boy.

    Democrats *used* to be against regressive taxes.

  3. bdbd says:

    Similar issues arise and cause headaches in commercial aviation — no one wants to bite the bullet on congestion based access pricing to capacity constrained airports. An added hurdle arises because airlines are already capturing some of the congestion rents, so introducing congestion charges for access may pull money out of airline pockets while reducing congestion.

    A political challenge that can arise for successful congestion pricing is that once the charges are in place and traffic is running more smoothly, there seems to no longer be a pressing need for the congestion charges.

  4. Dave says:

    @Anon: that *really* tiny subset of poor people who have no transit options and must pay the congestion charge could simply be rebated the congestion charge off their income taxes, so even they wouldn’t be harmed by the congestion charge. That’s a plan that Dems could support and still be considered “progressive.”

  5. justafed says:

    The Bellows says:

    “The issue is somewhat less clear-cut within metro areas without transit.”

    I claim it is less clear-cut even in metro areas *with* transit, because the transit we have cannot possible service the yawning abyss of suburbia at unsubsidized rates people will pay. Because you bring it up, let’s talk about the Maryland suburbs of DC. Given the high cost of housing anywhere near DC, it is by no means rare for people to live dozens of miles away from their workplaces, where densities are either really low (and there is no way to service that effectively) or really high (and that’s where you see the bus routes, when you see them). As luck would have it, I have had to commute by bus from the relatively close in suburbs from places we strategically rented just because there was bus service. But even there, the results are not pretty. The average speed of a commute that involves a Ride-on bus is often under ten miles per hour, and Lord help you if you need to make a bus transfer. And the situation is pretty much untenable if you have to pick up a kid from a childcare provider at a third location.

    I am not saying that we should not improve transit in the DC area, but we should not kid ourselves that it will be cheaper than doing nothing, or that the transit we have is anywhere near adequate. Transit could (and arguably should) swallow up all of the congestion fees you can generate in the DC area and probably then some if you want any kind of quality of service in the area. And if the situation is nearly hopeless here in DC, it is going to be completely hopeless in the much less dense metros that currently dominate population growth in the US.

  6. dr2chase says:

    @Justafed – bike, perhaps? Maybe an e-bike? Boston burb to MIT is 20 minutes by car (I’ve timed it, 8 miles), plus time to find parking, parking, and walk to where you want to go. By bike, it’s 30 minutes (I’ve timed that, too), closer to 6 miles. Bike to the subway, walk from subway, it’s a hair more than 30 minutes.

    Google maps is not yet getting the bike routes as good as they should.

  7. hnc says:

    I’m all for congestion pricing, but it really does hurt drivers with a lower opportunity cost of time (mainly poor people).

  8. rjs says:

    it isnt really about congestion, or pollution, or convenience…its a matter of necessity, as the dwindling remaining oil on the planet becomes a increasingly expensive and valuable resource…