Thoughts on the Post's toll roads and congestion pricing article

Expectedly, there was plenty of interesting commentary on yesterday’s feature in the Washington Post on political appointee Tyler Duvall and the Department of Transportation’s attempts to steer America towards the privatization of transportation infrastructure.

Ryan Avent sees a problem, perceiving that the issue is painted as a decision between roadway pricing OR transit. (It’s worth noting, that NYC is getting extra money for transit projects ONLY if they implement the pricing. Otherwise, they leave millions for transit on the table. I think they may be the only city in that position, though.) He offers a clear-headed solution:

For the life of me, I can’t understand why no one is suggesting that we do both. Transit demand is growing, the adoption of road user fees will only increase such demand, and for the past 50 years we’ve busied ourselves building way, way more highway mileage than new transit capacity. Now, you start pricing roads and several things happen. 1) Congestion falls. 2) Demand for transit grows, and existing transit systems are overwhelmed. 3) You have a large pot of new money. 4) You could use that money to build new transit capacity, generating a large net increase in transportation connectivity while cushioning the cost of expensive roads and gas to commuters.

Rob Goodspeed defends the ability of pricing to affect congestion, which has been attacked by Rep. Peter DeFazio as regressive. Pricing roads to alleviate congestion while also investing in transportation options like transit makes sense:

Congressman DeFazio seems to consider traffic inelastic, meaning it won’t be impacted by tolls. However, according to the National Household Transportation Survey only 19% of travel is commuting to work, and 30% is for recreational and social purposes. It seems reasonable to expect some of the drivers will drive less in response to higher costs, or even use mass transit.

While Congressman DeFazio’s concern with equity is well meaning, we should consider the complex impacts of new tolls in a sophisticated way. While transportation is and should be considered a public good, as riders of public transportation know that good is often provided at a fee.

Frank at The Orphan Road in Seattle writes
from the test tube, as Seattle is one of the pilot cities for testing pricing/tolling. He sees privatization as the next logical step after the precedent of a fee-supported infrastructure — a reasonable conclusion considering that’s probably the endgame of the administration:

I think congestion pricing of some sort is inevitable, and probably a good idea in the long run, but we have to keep in mind that once you’ve moved to a tax-supported infrastructure to a fee-supported infrastructure, the next logical step can be to privatize the whole darn thing. This is one reason why environmentalists oppose use fees for parks: once you’ve created a consistent revenue stream, sooner or later it makes sense to let the Mariott Corporation, say, come in to run Yellowstone and collect the fees.

The Overhead Wire echoes basically the same logic that reducing congestion on roadways should always be paired with other options:

If pricing is implemented, there should be a real plan to give people an alternative of real rapid transit. The New York plan is great because they have plenty of alternatives to get places in the pricing zone.

But BeyondDC had the harshest analysis of the administration’s position in the story, by way of comparison with a study from the Transportation Planning Board: (pdf)

The TPB’s vision: Balance transportation by making drivers pay user fees and sinking the toll profits into expanding transit.

Bush’s vision: Reduce highway congestion by selling roads to private businesses who will toll highly enough to discourage use. Toll profits go to private businesses. Users who are discouraged from using the highways… are somebody else’s problem.