Tired of the Bridge Toll Debate? Here's Another Path.

By David A. King

The increasing costs of personal mobility are forcing Americans to make difficult decision about where and when they travel for work and play. The average U.S. household spends more of its income on transportation than anything except housing. Consider that prior to 1960 average households spent 14 percent on transportation, but today’s families devote almost 20 percent to mobility. For poor families, the situation is much worse as many spend over 40 percent of their income on transportation. At the same time that transportation costs are rising, investment in road and transit infrastructure is falling. For families and government the status quo is unsustainable and in many cases unfair. New sources of revenue are required to meet our transportation investment needs, but we need to make sure that our transportation systems are equitable, affordable and accessible.These challenges facing transportation policy are great and require creative solutions that guarantee the right to mobility while improving investment in transportation.

One potential way to overcome the public opposition to tolls and fees necessary for transportation investment is through the use of "mobility credits" that can be used to pay for personal transportation. In New York City mobility credits might work like this: The city issues mobility vouchers to all residents, which would in turn be used as the currency to pay for bridge tolls, congestion charges, transit fares or even expenses like bike repairs. If travelers need to buy additionalvouchers they can buy them at kiosks, similar to how New York MTA Metrocards are issued now, or refill their account online similar to EZ Pass. The mobility credits program can be financed through existing transportation taxes plus new user fees, and the revenue will be dedicated to transit and other transportation investment. Credits have the ability to enhance transportation choices, generate revenue for investment and improve equity. Bridge tolls and other automobile charges will cost many more credits than transit fares, thus incentivizing transit use. People could even trade their credits to others, so that those who rely on driving—a sizable minority of New York commuters—can afford new tolls and charges. The less impact your travel choices have on others, the fewer credits you need. This is particularly helpful for low income households, who tend to travel much less than wealthier ones.

Credits have been proposed elsewhere, but largely as a means to negate political opposition to congestion tolls. Mobility credits go beyond this simple political calculus and treat access to transportation as a critical right for everybody. By directly giving people the means to pay for their transportation choices, credits improve the life of all recipients, not only those lucky enough to live near new transit or road investment or able to buy a house using a location-efficient mortgage. In a city where proposed bridge tolls and congestion pricing have failed to capture the necessary political and public support in recent years, issuing credits to pay these new user fees could change the political landscape; the economic incentive to switch from driving to transit is still there, but any new toll proposals becomes much more palatable.

A well-designed credit program may improve political climate for new pricing mechanisms and help shift people from driving to transit. But most importantly, credits will help reveal the true costs of travel and create more equitable access to all opportunities.

David A. King is an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.