Arguing that $40 congestion charges are good for drivers

The new express lanes on I-66 outside Washington D.C. may just be what driving looks like in the future:

The express lanes on Interstate 66 near DC, previously reserved for vehicles carrying two or more people, opened up to solo travelers. Except those single-occupancy vehicles have to pay a toll, one that fluctuates according to demand. The world watched, aghast, as tolling prices hit $40 for folks headed into the capital on Tuesday morning…

“Transportation pricing usually takes several months or even years to achieve its full effects, so the current maximum prices are probably two or three times what will occur once everybody becomes familiar with the system,” says Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia. “Over the next few months, many travelers will probably change when and how they travel, so the maximum price will probably decline to a few dollars per trip.”

One of congestion pricing’s greatest strengths is convincing drivers to skip trips they don’t really need to take, or convince them to go at another time. Though the express lane scheme targets commuters, not everyone who travels during those periods is going to work. In fact, some might be taking totally optional trips—grabbing milk, meeting a friend for coffee. “The percentages vary by metro area and travel corridor (as do the timing and duration of peak periods) but the data show that about half of peak period trips are for other purposes,” says Elizabeth Deakin, who studies regional planning at UC Berkeley and has evaluated congestion tolling in the Bay Area.

Eventually—and you’ll have to wait a while to see this—congestion pricing can influence where people choose to live. If you don’t have to pay for tolls, the big house out in the suburbs with the huge backyard looks like a great option. When it costs $20 in tolls to get to work every day, not so much. If every one of those McMasion abandoners drives to work, well, that can make a dent in a traffic jam. Remember: You’re not in traffic. You are traffic.

The main purpose of such charges is to get drivers to think twice about traveling to that location via car or using that route. Not everyone will take the alternative – and Americans do like their driving and the freedom they think it offers even as they regularly complain about all the traffic in urban areas – but enough will do so to at least stop the increase in congestion.

As these options expand, it will be interesting to see how residents of each area respond. Will they protest by not taking those roads? (I remember such claims here in the Chicago region a few years back when tolls were raised.) Will they pursue public referendums? Will they refuse to pay? Would they vote out those who enabled these traffic changes? Even though there is likely to be a lot of complaining, it is also difficult to mount a serious political response to congestion pricing.

Tolls to “never” go away on Illinois tollways

The acting secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation recently discussed the ongoing presence of tolls on Illinois highways:

Acting Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn Friday answered the question that’s been on commuters’ minds since the state’s first three tollways opened in 1958: When will the tolls go away, as promised.

“Never,” Blankenhorn told a gathering of Kane County leaders. “The existing tolls are going to be on the tollway. That’s the way it’s going to be. The truth is unless we are willing to put significantly more state and federal money into the system, tolls are going to be the way we fund the system. It’s not going to be the only way, but it’s going to be part of the package.”…

Blankenhorn, calling himself “a user fee kind of guy” stuck to his support for existing and new tolls throughout his answers. The history of borrowing money to fund all segments of transportation, including ongoing maintenance, must end, he said.

“We’ve got to be able to pay for maintenance as we go,” Blankenhorn said. “We need a stable funding source that grows. User fees, I think, have to be part of this solution. If we don’t do something soon, we will have 5,000 miles of roadway in Illinois that will be in need of immediate repair. How long do we want to fund infrastructure on cigarette taxes and gambling?”

Given that the federal government nor states seem particularly interested in big infrastructure/highway funding (and even if they wanted to, money isn’t exactly flowing these days), I would guess that tolls will continue to grow. You the driver want a road, particularly a new one that cuts through already-developed areas? Be prepared to pay tolls.

Keeping track of speeding in E-Z Pass lanes – but not enforcing it?

Some states monitor speeding through open road tolling:

Several states, including New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania, say they monitor speeds through the fast pass toll lanes and will suspend your E-Z Pass for multiple speeding violations.

In all, five of the 15 E-Z Pass states have some kind of rules on the books for breaking the speed limit in the convenience lanes.

This makes some sense. Yet, the states don’t consistently enforce these rules. Here are two examples:

“You can lose your E-Z Pass privileges if you speed through E-Z Pass lanes,” says Dan Weiller, director of communications for the New York State Thruway Authority. “You get a couple of warnings. We don’t have the power to give a ticket, but we do have to power to revoke your E-Z Pass, which we will.”…

In Pennsylvania, a warning usually suffices for lead-footed drivers, says Carl DeFebo, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. “If a collector spots an E-Z Pass customer blasting through at a high rate of speed, they’ll get a license plate,” he says. “We do have the ability to send a warning letter to the customer, and that has proven effective. If the customer doesn’t heed the warning we have the ability to suspend their E-Z Pass privileges but we haven’t done that recently.”

My interpretation: states have had the ability to monitor speeding at these open toll lanes. Theoretically, they could even calculate the time it takes to drive between points and could track speeding on the open highway. But, widely ticketing people in these open toll lanes would be unpopular and seen as heavy-handed so they don’t crack down on everyone.

I want to know: is this strategy effective? Does the threat of a ticket (whether it is on posted signs before the tolls or is in the user agreement) actually slow people down? If this is really a safety issue, shouldn’t this be enforced consistently? It sounds like the speeding on Chicago highways that takes place among most drivers but the state won’t raise the 55 mph speed limit near Chicago.

New bill would allow states to turn interstates into toll roads

With funding for highway repairs harder to find, the new transportation bill from the White House would give states more room to add tolls to interstates:

With pressure mounting to avert a transportation funding crisis this summer, the Obama administration Tuesday opened the door for states to collect tolls on interstate highways to raise revenue for roadway repairs.

The proposal, contained in a four-year, $302 billion White House transportation bill, would reverse a long-standing federal prohibition on most interstate tolling…

“We believe that this is an area where the states have to make their own decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We want to open the aperture, if you will, to allow more states to choose to make broader use of tolling, to have that option available.”…

Foxx said the highway trust fund would face a $63 billion shortfall over the next four years.

One expert suggests otherwise in this story but I imagine there are a lot of drivers who will not like this. Yet, roads are not free; they are a public service that have to be paid for. And the all-around costs of driving are not cheap: gas, insurance, car repairs, car purchases, road construction and maintenance, and then the host of other industries and business that exists on top of an automobile-driven culture.

While there will be a lot of debate over how roads can be funded (raising the gas tax which hasn’t changed since 1993, finding new revenue sources for roads like corporate taxes, or charging drivers per mile driven), this all hints at a larger issue: driving in America could change quite a bit in the coming decades. Some of the impetus is economic; who is going to pay for these roads which are expensive to maintain and repair? Some of the impetus is on the technology side: driverless cars may not be that far away since such vehicles could be much safer and more efficient on the road and other innovations could make cars and roads more efficient. Some of it may be cultural: Americans may be interested in driving less and living in sorts of places that require fewer individual trips by car. Some of it is environmental: improving the efficiency of cars and advocating for development that limits single-person car trips. This doesn’t mean the car will disappear from American life; it is an engrained part of American culture. Yet, how Americans view cars and driving might look different several decades from now.

New public relations campaign to convince Chicago area residents that congestion pricing is the way to go

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning launched a campaign today intended to raise support for congestion pricing on Chicago area highways:

Would driving a steady 55 mph the entire way be worth the price, say, of a latte, particularly on days when you are crunched for time?

Officials at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning think drivers will see value in a congestion-pricing plan that the agency is recommending be implemented on new highway lanes planned on six major existing and future roadways across the six-county area. Under congestion pricing, drivers who opt to use free-flowing express lanes pay a fee, or an extra toll on the Illinois Tollway, during peak traffic periods. The price goes down when fewer vehicles are on the roads…

In the proposal, the amount would be 5 cents to 31 cents per mile during rush hours, depending on the specific roadway. That comes out to $2.76 in the Stevenson scenario and $3.41 on the Eisenhower…

CMAP officials said their goal is to get congestion pricing up and running within three or four years, starting on the Addams. A widening project is slated to begin on the I-90 corridor next year, and the tollway has previously identified it for a possible congestion-pricing experiment.

I will be interested to see how people respond and what this public relations campaign looks like. It seems that certain highway solutions in the Chicago area, such as adding more lanes and increasing traffic capacity, are reaching an end or have run their course. Just how many lanes can you add anyway – and it really doesn’t help as this tends to attract drivers. There have been some plans in place to extend mass transit, such as through the delayed STAR Line, but money is lacking. High occupancy vehicle lanes have been discussed but haven’t really gone anywhere. Thus, congestion pricing might kill two birds with one stone: reduce highway traffic (or at least stabilize it) while raising some money that can be reapplied to highways. Of course, this will strike some as unfair, particularly coming after a toll hike (that hasn’t limited tollway traffic much), but no one is being forced to use the express lanes…

After Illinois toll hike: traffic barely down, revenue up 44%

The Illinois Tollway released some new figures of what happened to traffic and revenue after the January 1, 2012 toll hike:

Many drivers vowed to stop using the tollway and avoid paying an extra 35 or 45 cents for each I-PASS transaction — and double the tolls for cash-payers.

Through June, the number of passenger vehicle transactions on the tollway system fell 2.6 percent compared with the same period in 2011, tollway finance chief Michael Colsch said…

Based on estimates from the tollway’s traffic consultant, officials originally forecast a 5.9 percent decline in transactions because of the toll hike.

Toll revenue also is running higher than estimates, increasing about 44 percent through June, compared with a projected 41 percent for 2012, Colsch said.

Even though a number of people seemed really upset over this toll hike, this is what I suspected would happen: the tollways are convenient and paying a little more would not deter many drivers. There are few alternatives that are as fast and I also suspect using the IPass to pay the tolls removes some of the price shock (similar to how consumers will spend more by credit card than by using cash). Indeed, it would be interesting to know what the tolls would have to rise to before driving patterns would change dramatically. Additionally, there have been conversations in recent years about congestion pricing express lanes and I wonder if this small drop in traffic is a sign that these would be worth pursuing.

Of course, one could ask whether the Tollway is raising enough money to fund their stated goals and if the money will be used wisely…

Illinois State Toll Highway Authority thinking of changing how new interchanges are funded

If you were ever curious how new interchanges on Illinois toll roads are funded (and I am), you can find out here as the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (ISTHA) thinks of changing its regulations:

The agency traditionally funds half the costs of interchanges, but it may provide more money if it appears revenues will exceed 50 percent of projections or if communities indicate that the location is near a major regional road or truck route.

Other considerations would be if towns can offer right-of-way land or agree to finance the project and be reimbursed by the tollway.

Another proposal would be a “corridor approach.” This could mean when a new interchange is built with tolls that are higher than other nearby ones, the agency may evaluate and increase those adjacent rates…

Some other revisions include stipulations that all future requests for interchanges must come from government agencies and requiring more financial information and payback schedules.

I had no idea this is how things work but I am not surprised. Having studied the early years of some of the Illinois toll roads, particularly I-294, I-88, and I-90, it is remarkable to me how few full interchanges were built originally. For example, I-88 only had a few full interchanges, meaning that motorists could get on or off the tollway going any direction, between the Cook County line and Aurora. Since then, things have changed as the population further west of Chicago has increased. These changes included a new full Winfield Road interchange in the 1990s (which helped spur the growth of the Cantera property which has become quite important to Warrenville), an added full interchange at Route 59 (originally it only had two ramps), and a new interchange at Eola Road to help handle the growth in the Aurora area. Of course, not all of the interchanges have been improved: exits like Route 53 are still limited. Additionally, if you drive on other toll roads like the Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania Toll Roads/Turnpikes, the exits are quite infrequent as it would cost a lot more money to build interchanges where the population may not support it.

Naperville, Aurora mayors among those who voted for Illinois toll increase

Amidst news that Illinois tollway directors voted today to raise tolls for a $12 billion capital project (see my earlier thoughts here), I noticed that Naperville Mayor George Pradel is involved:

But a majority of Illinois State Toll Highway Authority leaders said the move is crucial to repair existing roads and build some new ambitious projects such as the long-delayed Elgin-O’Hare Expressway extension into O’Hare International Airport and a western bypass road around the airport. The capital plan will create about 120,000 permanent jobs and ease congestion, officials said.

“My heart goes out to those going through tough times and that have lost jobs. One side effect of this is that it will enhance the economy in northern Illinois over 15 years,” said Naperville Mayor and tollway director George Pradel, who voted for the toll increase.

The decision didn’t come quietly — one board director called the move too hasty and proposed a scaled-back version.

Director Bill Morris of Grayslake, the only dissenter in today’s vote, thinks the toll authority could carry out a 10-year capital plan with a 15-cent increase at a 40-cent toll plaza now with more hikes expected later.

You can see the profiles of the Illinois Tollway Board of Directors here. Having never looked at these profiles, I was intrigued: Pradel is joined by the current mayor of Aurora as well as well a number of businessmen and two female public servants (one from education, one from Cook County government). On the whole, it seems like the directors bought into the economic development argument: good tollways, whether that means improved roadways or new roadways, will help northeastern Illinois prosper.

But looking at the backgrounds of this group, I wonder how many also were influenced by how better roadways might help their community or business interests. While this is not necessarily bad – indeed, northeastern Illinois needs businesses and jobs – it is a different perspective than the common driver might have. (And since this is Illinois, I assume there is some political process behind this board. Still, no “citizen” members?) Take Mayor Pradel: was his vote solely for northeastern Illinois and/or is this quite beneficial for Naperville? The regional argument is interesting (and I’m sure the job and economic estimates could be debated) but I would be interested in hearing about how local interests affected this vote.

Further details on proposed Illinois toll hike; Illinois tolls rather low

The Chicago Tribune reports today that the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority wants to raise toll rates in order to raise money for several new projects, including a reconstruction of I-90 (the Jane Addams), adding an interchange between I-294 and I-57 (one of the few places in the US where two interstates do not have an interchange), extending the Elgin-O’Hare, and undertaking several studies for possible new roads (extending Route 53, the Illiana Expressway).

But there is more to this story. While the Authority wants money to undertake these projects, there is another defense for raising rates: Illinois toll rates are lower than other states.

The council urged that tolls on the existing tollway system be raised to levels “consistent with national averages” to generate revenue for the EOWB [Elgin-O’Hare West Bypass]. Currently, Illinois Tollway users pay the equivalent of 3 cents per mile, while the national average is 7 cents per mile, officials say. Using that model could result in a systemwide doubling of the current rate, to 80 cents from 40 cents for passenger vehicles using I-PASS, and to $1.60 from 80 cents for cash customers…

The report also said tolls on the EOWB itself should be “consistent with the level of other new toll projects nationwide,” or about 20 cents a mile. This suggests that tolls on the new highway could be as much as seven times the current rate, or $2.80 for passenger vehicles using I-PASS and $5.60 for cash customers…

In addition, the council’s report recommends that future toll increases be indexed to inflation. The last time the tollway hiked car tolls was 2005, but that was the cash rate. Cars with I-PASS pay the same rate as they did in 1983, the tollway says…
The report also urges consideration of so-called congestion pricing strategies, in which vehicles pay higher tolls during peak hours or for express lanes; extending the tollway’s bond maturity term up to 40 years; and giving further study to tolling adjacent freeways. That could mean imposing tolls on I-290.

I’m guessing Chicago area residents will not like this as it makes driving more expensive (particularly with the price of gas) and there will general grumbling about how the tolls were supposed to disappear at some point. But, roads have to be paid for somehow and whether motorists pay through tolls or gas taxes, they will pay for the privilege of using roads. If anything, perhaps Chicago area residents should be surprised that tolls have stayed so low when other states have raised them. Since we can probably assume that the cost of road building has gone up like everything else, it sounds like tolls should increase.

If there is a larger issue to be concerned about, we could ask about the planning undertaken by the state. A road like the Illiana Expressway has been discussed for decades and waiting this long to undergo a major study and then go through with the construction will cost more now than it would have years ago. The Elgin-O’Hare has been a running joke for a while. Additionally, it would be interesting to see how close or far planners were in estimating the number of vehicles that would use the highways each day. The early expressways in the area, I-294 and I-290 are two examples, have seen much more traffic than was initially anticipated, driving up costs. Overall, more foresight could have saved money.