Is DC-Area Congestion Taking Its Toll?
Photo from ICC Photo Gallery.

Photo from ICC Photo Gallery.

News flash: Most Washingtonians drive alone to work.  This is no surprise, but the Census Bureau’s 2006-2008 American Community Survey, just released, confirms that 63.7% of our region’s workers who are over 16 drive by themselves to the office.

Despite years of efforts to convince commuters to take transit or carpool, as well as a relatively good public transportation system, residents of the DC metro area cling to their SOVs.  What else can we do to change this?

The answer that’s been in the news lately is tolling. Tolls are planned for the Intercounty Connector (ICC), an 18.8-mile highway under construction between Gaithersburg and Laurel. To cover the road’s $2.56 billion construction cost, the Maryland Transportation Authority’s board has proposed rush-hour tolls of $.25 – $.35 per mile for 2-axle vehicles from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. on weekdays.  Off-peak rates for 2-axle vehicles would range from $.20 to $.30 per mile.  The price tag would be around $11 roundtrip for the many drivers expected to use the ICC to commute between I-95 and I-270.  The ICC tolling plan is getting a lot of press for proposing some of the highest rates in the country.

However, proponents argue that it’s not kosher to compare the ICC with older toll roads, whose construction costs were lower and may have been paid off years ago.  They claim that the proposed tolls are about average for newer roads.

Tolls are also planned for the HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes on part of the Capital Beltway in Virginia, and for the HOT lanes to be opened on Interstates 395 and 95 in Northern Virginia.  A more comprehensive (and controversial) vehicle miles traveled-based tolling system is even being explored, where GPS, cell phone towers or other mechanisms would be used to charge drivers per mile.

This scheme has been touted by the National Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission created by Congress, and is now under study by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board and the Brookings Institution. Issues being examined include the feasibility of garnering public support, privacy concerns, cooperation between jurisdictions, and how revenues could be shared within the area and between roads and mass transit.

Overall, tolls and private sources are expected to account for 7% of Washington’s total transportation costs over the next two decades, up from 1% in 2003.  That’s a jump of more than $400 million per year (from a National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board analysis. This shift in how we finance our transportation infrastructure translates into a new set of rules for D.C. drivers.  The only tolled highways that exist now are the Dulles Toll Road and its extension, the Dulles Greenway.

On paper, the argument for road tolling is strong.  By charging motorists directly for driving, tolling at once addresses congestion and raises much-needed revenue for road construction and maintenance.  The gas tax is generating less revenue than it used to, and this downward trend will continue as more people shift to hybrids and other fuel-efficient cars.

However, in reality, road tolling is no easy sell.  Essentially, it requires lawmakers to ask the public to pay for something they currently do for free (not counting the costs they impose on society in the form of congestion, sprawl and environmental pollution.)  Critics point out the equity issues involved in tolling schemes as well.  Tolls can create two-tier road systems, where more affluent drivers enjoy faster travel times on so-called “Lexus Lanes” while those who can’t afford the tolls are forced to take slower, more congested routes. (Although, according to testimony by Michael A. Replogle, former transportation director for Environmental Defense, “Real-world HOT lanes look more like ‘Lumina Lanes,’ used by people of widely varying incomes who occasionally need to bypass traffic delays that disrupt their social, family, or work life.”)

To avoid the political difficulties inherent in tolling, some leaders have focused on tolling newly constructed lanes rather than applying tolls to existing lanes.  This often results in free lanes alongside tolled lanes.  As Streetsblog points out, the existence of faster-moving toll lanes next to clogged free lanes may make the connection between tolling and free-flowing traffic clear to motorists.  On the other hand, this strategy makes the implementation of tolling a challenge, as governments face high start-up costs.  New, tolled lanes cost much more than adopting tolls on existing lanes.

We’ll be watching this debate as it unfolds.  The first public hearing on the ICC tolls, held Wednesday night, was quietThe second one is going on right now (Thursday, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.) at Shady Grove Middle School, and public comments will be accepted until November 23.   The Maryland Transportation Authority board is scheduled to vote on a final toll structure on December 17.  No matter what happens, it is clear that decision makers need to address the equity issue.  An adequate portion of the revenue raised should be invested in public transit, specifically targeting modes and routes that serve as alternatives for those impacted by the tolls.

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