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Congestion Pricing Draws Skepticism From Area Commuters

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Measures to curb traffic received tepid
Michael Galvosky: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mindgutter/3179832991/
Measures to curb traffic received tepid

Commuters are skeptical that congestion pricing will reduce traffic congestion in the metropolitan Washington area, according to a study released Wednesday by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. Instead, they prefer alternatives to driving, in the form of commuter rail, express bus service, or bicycling and walking, the study found.

"They really want to make sure that there are clear benefits," says TPB planner John Swanson. "That it's going to fund new transportation alternatives, better transit, bikes, peds, all those new improvements, but particularly transit and high quality bus."

The 65-page report (pdf) weighed the attitudes of 300 area residents from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Study participants were asked to consider three scenarios: 1) placing tolls on all major roadways including interstate highways; 2) charging a per-mile fee measured by GPS systems installed in cars; and 3) creating priced zones similar to London that would charge motorists to enter a designated area. The scenarios received tepid support.

For many, driving not a choice

The study participants spoke of congestion in personal terms: in family time robbed, or the stress of dealing with incessant traffic. To most commuters, driving is not a choice.

"The availability of other options besides driving — such as transit, walking and biking — increased receptiveness to pricing," the report states. "Participants also spoke favorably of proposals that would maintain non-tolled lanes or routes for those who cannot or do not want to pay." 

Transit advocates see the report as validation.

"What's most interesting about this report is that it was an effort to seek public support for congestion pricing, but what it documented was the much stronger support for transit and improvements in how we plan land use in order to give people more choices to get around," said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Changing attitudes on gas tax

The study's authors — the TPB partnered with the Brookings Institution — found that respondents favored raising the gas tax as an easier, fairer alternative to implementing a congestion pricing program.

The gas tax "is a hidden fee," said Swanson. "We learned that people actually like that. There is a general sense of the invisibility of the gas tax being a problem and potentially a benefit, something that's strangely attractive to people."

Participants by-and-large identified transportation funding shortfalls as a critical problem, yet expressed doubts the government would make the right choices if additional revenues were made available through congestion pricing.

"I think people get that there is a lack of funding. They also get the fact there are a number of other problems. There aren't alternatives," says TPB board member Chris Zimmerman. 

Zimmerman, whose background is in economics, is unsure congestion pricing would even work.

"Even if you are paying a gas tax, it's not related to your use of any particular road," Zimmerman said. "An economist looks at that and says of course you are going to get inefficiency and congestion."

The Washington region saw two major highways shift to congestion pricing in 2012. The ICC in Maryland charges variably priced tolls; the 495 Express Lanes charge dynamically priced tolls and offer free rides to HOV-3 vehicles.

In the case of the Express Lanes, the state of Virginia will not receive toll revenues for 75 years per its contract with its private sector partner, Transurban.It remains to be seen if the new toll lanes will ultimately reduce congestion in the heavily traveled corridor. The ICC also has its critics more than one year after the first tolls were charged, with critics noting the road is underused.

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