"Congestion pricing" could be the future of transportation financing

A traffic jam on Interstate 495 in Alexandria, Va.

TEXT OF STORY

BOB MOON: This is a given: Transportation is vital to our economy. But what happens when fuel taxes are lost to more efficient cars and better mass transit? In the first of a series on the "Future of Transportation," Cathy Duchamp looks at one alternative to the gas tax, something called "congestion pricing."


CATHY DUCHAMP: To understand the concept of congestion pricing we take a ride on the Washington D.C. beltway with David Lewis. He's a transportation economist with the consulting firm HDR. Right now, the lanes we drive in are toll-free. With congestion pricing --

DAVID LEWIS: You see that steel girder that crosses the road.

DUCHAMP: Right.

LEWIS: That would be mounted with cameras and electronic devices.

Those devices would record when we cross from a free lane into a designated toll lane that's moving faster.

LEWIS: And at the end of the month you'd get a bill for making that trip.

That's the way congestion pricing works. Instead of a tax on the amount of gas you use, you get taxed on the miles you drive. And, you pay more to drive in the peak commute. Lewis says think of it like a surcharge for a movie:

LEWIS: No one objects to paying more to go to the movies on a Saturday night than they pay to go to the matinee.

Lewis says even the most skeptical driver will pay the tolls when they see less traffic:

LEWIS: If we could reduce the volume of traffic that we're stuck in right now by 10 percent, our speed might go up by 20 percent.

Congestion priced lanes can be found in California, and Colorado. There's also one on the Virginia side of DC. On the Maryland side of the Capitol there are plans for a highway where all lanes will be tolled. It's called the Inter-County Connector. As you'd expect there's opposition:

PHIL ANDREWS: I'm very concerned that the tolls that will charged will price the public off the road.

Phil Andrews is a county councilman in the suburbs where the new highway is under construction. Andrews agrees people should pay more for transportation. But he says 25 cents a mile -- the approved rate for the new highway -- is too much. Andrews wants to revisit the gas tax:

ANDREWS: I think the gas tax needs to be raised each year by a nickel to a dime until it's producing enough revenue to fund the transportation projects that we need.

But policy-makers wonder about the day when we're all driving electric cars. There won't be much gas to tax. That's one reason why support for congestion pricing continues to grow.

In Gaithersburg Maryland, I'm Cathy Duchamp for Marketplace.

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