Congestion Pricing Cannot be the Future of Transportation Funding, Part 1: NMA E-Newsletter #468

Single-occupant Northern Virginia commuters had a rude awakening in early December when they used Interstate 66 express lanes and found new tolls spiking as high as $44 for commuting the 10-mile stretch between the Capital Beltway and the District of Columbia. While the Virginia DOT showed that the average round-trip toll during the first week was $14.50, the agency also noted that its dynamic pricing model changes the toll rate every six minutes based on congestion levels, which resulted in single-occupant, single-car rates of $30, $40 and, yes, $44 at times. VDOT blamed political posturing for complaints by some Virginia legislators about the captive-audience tolling that was breaking the wallets of many motorists. We see it as the politicians actually doing their jobs in representing their constituents.

Early users of the tolled I-66 express lanes will soon be getting confirmation of the actual cost. The chorus against VDOT congestion pricing will undoubtedly get louder.

The I-66 express lane tolling is not the only controversy brewing over congestion pricing.

A fight has been slowly building between the states of Oregon and Washington.

Oregon lawmakers passed a $5.3 billion transportation bill in July which included the use of congestion tolling on I-5 and I-205 beginning at the Washington State line and continuing through the Portland metro area, and a graduated gas tax increase of 10-cents more by 2024.

Portland sits at the northern edge of the state. An estimated 65,000 people or 20 percent of Portland’s workforce commutes from Washington State. Many of the out-of-staters who work in the city do so because they cannot afford the rent or home prices in the Portland area.

Before implementation, Oregon’s interstate tolling plan will need to be approved by Congress. Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler became involved when Clark County, Washington commuters told her that they would be charged unfairly for crossing the two interstate border bridges which are the only ones crossing over the Columbia River in the Portland area. Herrera Beutler sponsored an amendment in a federal spending bill to prevent Oregon from receiving any funding to implement tolls on interstates in 2018. The bill was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and is awaiting approval by the Senate.

The Portland Region Value Pricing Policy Advisory Committee continues to meet to put together a plan in case the state can use congestion pricing on these two interstates as a funding option.

In the meantime, two reports came out in December about Washington State’s own congestion-priced express lanes tolling on I-405 in and around the Seattle area.

Earlier this year, the express lanes celebrated their two-year anniversary with this news: In the first two years of operations, $44.5 million in revenue and $28.8 million in profit had been collected (triple the original estimate) which by law, must go back into road projects in the I-405 corridor. The unbridled success of this cash cow has turned a two-year experiment into what is now a permanent project fixture.

The second report came from University of Minnesota researchers who say that the computer algorithm used for congestion pricing should make the tolls rise much more quickly from the 75-cent minimum toward $10 or higher during the critical moments when cars begin using the left lane. The academics suggested that price surging could even happen in mid-trip. Drivers travel 2.5 million miles per day between the Washington cities of Lynnwood and Bellevue which is 11 percent more than two years ago. Ka-ching!

Next week, we’ll explore why New York City’s congestion pricing controversy has heated up at the beginning of Bill de Blasio second term as mayor.

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