NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Gaining Public Support for Freeway Congestion Pricing

April 20, 2012

Numerous reports have found America's infrastructure to be lacking when it comes to supplying the needs of a productive economy.  Standard traffic congestion on major highways has become a significant point for this criticism, as economists emphasize the enormous losses of an inefficient highway system, says Robert W. Poole, Jr., director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation.

To resolve this issue, policy analysts have attempted to steer decision makers away from the standard solution of adding more capacity -- this is a costly endeavor and often does marginally little to alleviate congestion.  Rather, they advocate that existing spaces be used more efficiently through the use of innovative pricing models.

In creating this new pricing model, two crucial implicit assumptions for highway tolls must be hurdled:

  • General purpose lanes are more efficient -- while conventional wisdom suggests that this is the case, there do exist situations in which specialized lanes for vehicles such as trucks make sense.
  • All lanes should pay the same toll -- equal pricing across lanes does not allow users to opt into the lane that best matches the value they place on their time.

Once these assumptions are vanquished, an innovative system for running, funding and maintaining major highways becomes feasible.

  • High occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes are replaced with high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, offering users the opportunity to pay a premium toll in order to commute more quickly.
  • Users who cannot justify paying that premium but still value their time at a greater value than is currently being served would advocate for additional lanes at variable prices.
  • This would eventually lead to a bifurcated system for standard road users in which drivers can opt for a premium toll and commute quickly, or pay a regular toll and commute slowly.
  • This system would also include a specially allocated lane for trucks -- this would allow truck-specific building materials for that lane and, in some cases, an increase in the number of lanes in a fixed space.

Political scientists have often pointed to the infeasibility of this sort of plan -- that users would never opt for higher tolls.  However, if revenues from tolls were allocated exclusively to road construction/maintenance, consumers would likely be more amenable to them.

Source: Robert W. Poole, Jr., "Gaining Public Support for Freeway Congestion Pricing," Reason Foundation, April 2012.

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