When New York’s Legislature in April defeated a congestion pricing measure for New York City that would have tapped into US$354 million in federal funds from the US DOT’s Congestion Initiative, it was a chilling blow to the congestion pricing movement in the United States.
If the US’s most high profile city would not embrace the congestion pricing concept, skeptics asked, would other cities would reject the concept as well?
Winners and losers
Those fears appear unfounded. New York’s loss turned into gains for Chicago and Los Angeles as US DOT reallocated the federal funds, with the two cities receiving a total of US$366 million to participate in the program, designed to support congestion relief projects in some of the most traffic-jammed cities in the United States.
On 6 June, Parsons Brinckerhoff announced that it had been chosen to develop the LA congestion charge scheme, which must be both technically feasible and acceptable to the public (see: PB develops LA congestion charge).
Chicago and Los Angeles have joined San Francisco, Miami, Seattle, and Minneapolis/St. Paul as major American cities participating in US Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters’ national strategy to reduce congestion on America’s transportation network.
At the core of congestion pricing is the principle that tolls are continually adjusted according to traffic conditions to maintain a free-flowing level of traffic. Under this system, prices increase when the tolled lane(s) get relatively full and decrease when the tolled lane(s) empty.
Maintaining optimal flows
The current price is displayed on electronic signs prior to the beginning of the tolled section. This system is more complex and less predictable than using a fixed-price table, but its flexibility helps to maintain an optimal traffic flow.
It is a classic example of the supply and demand principle – a rolling free market system with cameras, sensors and other electronic devices collecting tolls without slowing traffic.
Cities, counties and states across the nation are now looking at congestion pricing to help address severe budget shortfalls and a growing list of unmet infrastructure needs.
According to the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), congestion in the top 85 US urban areas causes 3.7 billion hours of travel delay and 2.3 billions gallons of wasted fuel, for a total cost of US$63 billion each year. In the 10 most congested areas, each rush hour traveler “pays” an annual “congestion tax” of between US$850 and US$1,600 in lost time and fuel and spends the equivalent of almost eight workdays each year stuck in traffic.
There are four main types of pricing strategies: Variably priced lanes, such as Express Toll Lanes or HOT lanes; variable tolls on entire roadways; cordon charges that are either variable or fixed charges imposed on drivers while traveling within or into a designated city area; and per-mile charges on all roads within an area (area-wide charges) that may vary by level of congestion.
Congestion pricing is an equitable part of the solution to America’s traffic congestion. Users pay for using the highways during peak times and those traveling during off-peak times do not.
For Americans, the question is no longer if they will pay tolls – but rather how much they will pay when they want to drive.
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