This week, the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge rollout ushers in a new day for Washington drivers. Toll bridges aren't new, but Narrows bridge drivers will pay their tolls electronically, a local test of a technology that is likely to be widely used here if tolls are extended to more roadways, highways, freeways, and bridges. The July 14 Seattle Post-Intelligencer had a chart showing areas of Western Washington where tolling might occur, including the Evergreen Point Bridge across Lake Washington, the Alaskan Way Viadcut on the Seattle waterfront, the proposed "cross-base highway" in Pierce County, Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass, the new bridge across the Columbia River between Vancouver and Portland, and a long stretch of Interstate 5 through Lewis County. It estimated the I-5 toll alone as generating more than $80 million per year. Not including revenues from possible HOV "hot lane" tolls, the P-I estimated revenues from these possible new tolls would be in excess of $193 million annually. And this doesn't even include the more widespread use of congestion pricing in King County envisioned by Executive Ron Sims. As my Norwegian relatives would say, uffda, that's a lot of penga. Increasing use of tolls and a shift to congestion pricing is on a roll here and nationally – though there is resistance. This week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ambitious London-style tolling proposal for the city failed to get support in the state Legislature in Albany, despite the cheerleading [subscription required] of the world's biggest flathead, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. One concern raised was the level of public surveillance tolling would entail. Bloomberg has conceded defeat. But economists, transportation experts, cash-hungry governments, and a growing number of environmentalists agree that more tolling and congestion pricing – where tolls vary depending on time of day and sometimes type of vehicle – are the best public policy. Nevertheless, there are some real concerns that raise questions about whether road tolling is a panacea or a Pandora's Box. I'm not going to go into all the pros and cons of tolling and congestion pricing here. The fact is, I'm still learning about them myself. But I have learned enough to see that the issues are significant and that understanding the political context in which discussions are taking place is incredibly important. Tolling is happening in a global context, not just a local one. One of the best articles I've seen to date on the subject is "The Political Calculus of Congestion Pricing" [208K PDF] by David King, Michael Manville, and Donald Shoup with the department of Urban Planning at UCLA. It was published earlier this year in the journal Transportation Policy. The authors favor congestion pricing and take a hard-headed look at how to make it politically palatable. They focus on the Greater Los Angeles area, where it could raise $5 billion a year in revenues. But their observations of experiences around the world range widely. The authors admit that congestion pricing is unpopular with the public, and their objective is to outline how to create viable political constituency for congestion pricing in the L.A. area. In other words, how to sell it. And when I say hard-headed, I mean they admit the downsides of congestion pricing and quote Machiavelli. One of the things they admit is that congestion pricing hurts. The manager of congestion pricing in Singapore, a city that loves to paddle its miscreants, has said that drivers there "feel the pain." And that, of course, is the point: A certain percentage of drivers choose to abandon their cars or use public transport and stop commuting altogether to avoid the pain of tolls. Everyone else just pays up. Pain is why it works. But the authors point out a problem. The benefits of congestion pricing are general – less congestion, less pollution – but not all that tangible for individuals. The pain is felt broadly, too, but the authors note that pain is more keenly felt than pleasure: "[T]o quote Adam Smith," they write, "'Pain is ... in almost all cases, a more pungent sensation than the opposite and corresponding pleasure.'" The public's hatred of taxation is a case in point. The problem for congestion pricing in the U.S. is that the highest-profile congestion pricing experiments have occurred in cities that already had huge percentages of commuters using public transportation. When Singapore introduced it in 1975, they write, only one in 16 people even owned cars. When London introduced congestion pricing in 2003, "only 12 percent of all commuting into the cordoned-off area was by private car," and in Stockholm in 2003, only 33 percent of household travel in the tolled zone was by car, and nearly 60 percent of commuters went by public transit.
Because all three cities used the toll revenue to improve public transport, the toll burden fell on the motoring minority while the benefits accrued to the transit-riding majority.In other words, only a small minority felt the pain of tolling while the vast majority derived noticeable benefits immediately. That's a viable political climate. But congestion pricing is much less palatable in car-centric cities where it will hurt more commuters than it helps. So if congestion pricing has failed in New York City, where 54.5 percent of commuters already use public transportation to commute, how could it succeed in Seattle, where only 17 percent do? The authors conclude that support for congestion pricing can we won by creating more winners. The way to do that, they say, is to share the wealth by splitting revenues with the suburban cities the tollways pass through. The funding of local transport projects by cutting in local communities is already a hallmark of regional transportation planning here, though it has Balkanized spending in problematic ways. (Bellevue money stays in Bellevue to pay for road improvements while Seattle money pays for rail.) Plus regional transportation ballot measures end up including lots of local pork. But, the authors say, the money need not be spent on transportation: It could be used for schools or to pay down debt – any public benefit that citizens will feel more directly where they live. It also has the advantage of passing money from wealthy communities – drivers who are willing to pay the tolls and live in areas without freeways running through them – to poor communities riven by highways and with fewer auto commuters. Think of Hollywood subsidizing Compton. But social equity is not their goal: "The overriding factor in our argument ... is not abstract fairness but political calculation." To get broad support for congestion pricing, you'll need to bribe – excuse me, create a win-win for – political actors by giving local communities a piece of the congestion pricing windfall.
Congestion pricing cannot be sold as a policy that harms no one, or even as a policy that helps everyone a little. It can, however, be positioned as a policy that will benefit important political actors a lot. Its success depends, to paraphrase Machiavelli, not on convincing those who benefit from the status quo, but on finding others who will "do well under the new order of things."The authors argue, too, that people are reluctant to let go of a known benefit for a theoretical greater benefit – the benefit you know is better than the benefit you don't. Perhaps it's fear of change. Perhaps it's a learned response to political failure and empty promises: Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. That these things are felt intensely around transportation and mobility issues has been demonstrated time and again, from Tim Eyman's car-tab initiatives to the public's no-no vote on replacing the Viaduct. The article is well worth reading in its entirety by both proponents and opponents of congestion pricing. It also might be smart to pull your copy of The Prince off the shelf to get an idea of how politicos, policy makers, and planners are going to try and sell this thing. I'll be following up shortly with another story on the context for tolling and congestion pricing. That one will look at how tolling is connected to the trend toward the privatization of public infrastructure.
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