A Roadway Pricing Primer
The Tri-State Transportation Campaign is pressing NYC-area agencies to develop road pricing in key highway corridors. Here Transportation Alternatives board member Charles Komanoff describes how such policies could improve travel and economic conditions in NYC.
Picture this: every car and truck driven in New York is equipped with a pollution monitor that continuously measures and records its exhaust. Each month, drivers are billed for their vehicle's pollution - so many dollars per pound of carbon monoxide and other emissions, rated according to the estimated damage caused by each pollutant.
Picture some more: every street and highway in the five boroughs has sensors to detect each passing vehicle's identification code. Cars and trucks are billed for miles driven; heavy vehicles pay more, because they stress the road surface, make more noise and are more dangerous to other travelers. Likewise, miles driven in peak hours are charged more because they contribute to congestion and delays. To top it off, drivers who speed get charged extra.
What's wrong with this picture? For one thing, the technology to measure exhaust or monitor vehicle movement isn't here yet (though it may be closer than you think). For another, some people see Big Brother in the idea that their car's travel would be tracked and charged for. And the motoring public does not yet regard the road system as a transportation service it must pay extensive user fees for.
But there's a lot right with this picture. A city or region with such a system would reap powerful advantages. Among them cleaner air, less traffic, and easier travel, because motorists would respond to pollution and mileage fees by making fewer car trips. The revenues from these fees would give transit and road agencies funds to create a first-class transportation system. Moneys left over could replace sales taxes that hold back our economy and hurt the poor.
That, in a nutshell, is roadway pricing: charge directly for the harms caused by driving. Do vehicular emissions sicken and kill people? - make drivers compensate society (and encourage them to pollute less) by paying a smog fee proportional to the harm their emissions cause. Does rush-hour driving cause more delays than driving off-peak (or not driving at all)? - congestion pricing charges a premium for it, just as airlines have done for generations. Do heavy vehicles endanger other road users, spread noise and pulverize our roads? - impose per-mile charges geared to vehicle weight and speed (weight-distance tax).
Roadway pricing would profoundly change how we regulate and charge traffic. New York City's current patchwork of gas taxes and bridge and tunnel tolls doesn't even pay for road building and upkeep, let alone driving's environmental and social costs.
Will roadway pricing
change motorist behavior?
Smog fees will encourage drivers to drive less, purchase newer (cleaner) vehicles, keep vehicles tuned and buy electric. Congestion pricing will lead motorists to take transit, bike, walk, telecommute, car pool and make trips and deliveries off-peak. Weight-distance charges will push motorists and businesses toward lighter vehicles and less-frequent use.
Michael Cameron of the Environmental Defense Fund estimates that a 5¢/mile surcharge on driving in Southern California would eliminate about 10% of the region's vehicle-miles traveled and vehicular smog, and 30% of congestion, Imagine the effect here from full-scale roadway pricing.
How much would motorists pay,
and what should be done with the revenues?
With several billion dollars in additional revenue a year, the Transit Authority could eliminate 2-fare zones and finance monthly discount passes, cover shortfalls in its rebuilding plan, and expand subways and light rail to provide more travel alternatives for motorists. A hundred million a year in maintenance on city bridges would end costly catch-up work. As the phase-in grew, the surplus would be rebated as billions in lower taxes.
Would roadway pricing
create new inequities?
How soon could roadway
pricing be implemented?
As for the road sensors, the city's bridges, tunnels, highways and arterials could be wired in several years at a cost under $100 million (figuring 600 locations @ $100,000 each, plus a dollar or two per car). This system would require intensive traffic-calming of local streets to discourage motorists from bypassing the primary roads. Out-of-towners without a vehicle identification chip would pay a flat daily rate. A more immediate alternative would impose a per-mile fee in conjunction with electronic tolling of all bridges and tunnels into Manhattan as a form of congestion pricing.
Can New York go it alone?
What are the next steps
for roadway pricing?
Are you interested in a richer treatment of this subject? Send $6 to KEA, 636 Broadway, NYC 10012, for Charles Komanoff's 35-page report, "Pollution Taxes for Roadway Transportation.''