The 520 bridge-replacement project: a headline-grabbing example of infrastructure
We're headed into an era of green highways, but what kind of green it is depends on who you talk to. Environmentalists are encouraging the the use of road tolls and congestion pricing as a way to combat greenhouse gases. Political and business leaders are looking at tolls and thinking of another kind of green: the kind taxpayers are often reluctant to part with.
For both groups, the August 14 announcement that Seattle has won a $138.7 million federal Urban Partnership
grant to combat congestion was welcome news. King County Executive Ron Sims "applauded" the grant in a WSDOT announcement. In a press release, Mike O'Brien, chair of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club, enthused: "This is the best news for Puget Sound commuters in years." He added: "We now have a big choice ahead of us."
Indeed. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
laid it out this way:
The feds are pushing tolling
- A King County plan to reduce future traffic congestion on the state Route 520 bridge and elsewhere in the county has won a $138.7 million federal grant, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced today.
But there's a catch -- new tolls on the existing 520 bridge. The tolls, per agreement between the federal government, state, county and Puget Sound Regional Council, must be put in place to secure the grant.
and congestion pricing around the country offering the carrot of federal funds. Another grant recipient is New York City,
where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been fighting to keep a tolling plan alive despite opposition in Albany. Nevertheless, the Big Apple got a $354 million congestion grant with the priviso that they implement congestion pricing. The same day, the state legislature voted to create a commission to study just that, though a slim majority of New Yorkers oppose the plan.
In King County, it would work this way:
It all sounds very tempting,
- The county will receive $138.7 million to implement its "traffic-fighting" proposal to use tolls, improved transit, telecommuting and other technologies, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said during a news conference in Washington, D.C. The bulk of the money goes to the 520 corridor, but also to improved ferry, transit and other services....
The county plan calls for electronic tolling technology and express lanes on the new 520 bridge, which is undergoing mediation to help determine a final design. The electronic tolling would be similar to what is being used on the newly reopened Tacoma Narrows Bridge, state transportation officials say.
The money will help build transit across the 520 corridor -- $41 million for an estimated 45 more buses -- and $1 million will go to improving passenger-only ferry service for Vashon Island....
but people should be under no illusion that tolling and pricing will stop with the 520 bridge. Indeed, Seattle has also been the site of a major federally funded study
of road pricing called "The Traffic Choices Study,"
conducted by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC).
The study involved more than 275 Seattle area households and their some 400 vehicles over 18 months in a test of region-wide street tolling. Every highway and major arterial in Greater Seattle was "tolled" in the test (see the map here
to get an idea of how extensive it was). Drivers were tracked, their daily driving routes sent via satellite signal to a central computer. Drivers were then "charged" against a hypothetical schedule of tolls for each trip with rates adjusted up or down by time of day. Drivers had an incentive to drive less or drive during off-peak hours: a monthly amount to cover their driving was put into an account; if they drove less or more flexibly (and thus spent less), they got to pocket the difference.
The study's results aren't fully tabulated and analyzed yet. The PSRC expects the full results to be available by early 2008. But at a conference in June, they offered a sneak preview of some of the "sketch" results. They estimated that regional road tolling would raise anywhere from $1.5-$2 billion per year. They found that people did indeed drive less. They discovered that most of the revenue came from use of a few major routes, such as 520, I-90 and I-5. Five percent of the tolled miles produced 50% of revenue. But they also learned the system would only work if people couldn't easily divert onto free secondary roads. They acknowledged that it also would only work with widespread public and political acceptance. They also acknowledged that privacy would be an issue.
In addition to the PSRC's tests, we also have a small, live test of tolling technology going on now with the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. One recent finding: there are scofflaws who use the bridge without paying their tolls, but they are tracked down and billed, according to The Seattle Times:
- About a month after the Tacoma Narrows Bridge opened for traffic, the state Department of Transportation announced that it has issued 3,347 citations of $49 each to drivers who evaded its tollbooths.
The number of citations is about three to four percent of total crossings, officials said, and that's fewer evaders than most toll structures experience nationwide.
The E-Z Pass technology, however, is controversial and points up the privacy dangers of tolling and congestion pricing enabled by computer tracking. On the East Coast, lawyers are using electronic toll records to catch, among other things, cheating spouses:
"E-ZPass is an E-ZPass to go directly to divorce court, because it's an easy way to show you took the off-ramp to adultery," said Jacalyn Barnett, a New York divorce lawyer who has used E-ZPass records a few times.
Some civil liberties advocates are appalled, so before you pick up your "Good to Go" pass, consider this:
Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia turned Libertarian and privacy rights advocate, said people who want to protect their privacy shouldn't use electronic toll systems.
"People are foolish to buy into these systems without thinking, just because they want to save 20 seconds of time going through a toll booth," he said.
with your pants down isn't the only risk. Another is that electronic tolling can be rigged to overcharge drivers. Also electronic toll payment seems to lead to "toll creep." In other words, E-Z pass users wind up paying higher tolls than those who pay with cash. According to the MSNBC blog, Red Tape Chronicles, it works this way:
A recent study published by Amy Finkelstein, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that states with implement electronic toll collection ultimately raise tolls more than states where drivers pay cash.
Finkelstein studied toll taking in all 31 states that make drivers pay. About two-thirds of those states have at least some electronic toll booths. In her paper [PDF file], she provides evidence that e-toll states raise their prices 20 to 40 percent higher than they would have without electronic toll collection. And remember, E-tolls are supposed to reduce labor costs, as fewer toll-takers must be hired.
The conclusion makes sense, because consumers are always willing to pay more for things when they don't pay right away. Credit card companies figured this out long ago. And automated deductions make overcharging much easier. It's easy to see what a great tax-collecting tool that could be!
No wonder policy makers are excited about electronic tolling: not only will the technology allow everyone's movement's to be tracked and billed for, but the ease of electronic payment encourages people to overpay. It beats having to fight Tim Eyman, right?
As I have written before,
one of the controversial aspects of this is that the Bush administration sees widespread tolling as a Trojan Horse for greater privatization of our road system, just as it has encouraged privatization of social security and resists a publicly funded healthcare. It creates revenue streams that are attractive to private tollway builders and operators and tempts politicians to sell off roadways in order to get revenues they can't squeeze out of taxpayers.
Proponents and opponents of privatization and tolls are responding in the wake of the Minnesota bridge collapse. Shortly after the Minneapolis disaster, Steve Malanga argued for privatization to address the nation's infrastructure in the Wall Street Journal
[subscription req.]. Meanwhile opponents of privatization, James Ridgeway and Daniel Schulman, authors of the Mother Jones
article "The Highwaymen: Why You Could Soon Be Paying Wall Street Investors, Australian Bankers and Spanish Builders for the Privilege of Driving on American Roads" took to the airwaves
with Amy Goodman on "Democracy Now" to warn about the tolling and privatization agenda. I have previously covered the issue here.
Part of the temptation in the case of the federal grant for 520 congestion is that it comes at a time when we're struggling with how to pay for the replacement of the aging bridge (of course, it's not a simple replacement but an even bigger bridge). Tolling seems like a no-brainder to many people and privatization is thought to be not much of a worry with anti-privatizers like Speaker of the House Frank Chopp in office.
But while tolling and pricing might make good transportation or environmental policy -- and some argue, even social policy -- its downsides shouldn't be overlooked or underestimated. There is a need for much greater scrutiny and debate before we seize $138 million worth of carrots in exchange for instituting a pilot road system that will have profound implications for our pocketbooks, our freedom, and our privacy.