Before the pandemic, cities around the country were talking about implementing congestion pricing. Experts believe that charging a fee for parts of streets and highways used the most at the busiest times of day reduces demand. They believe that this tax incentivizes drivers to switch to other modes, other routes, or even travel at different times.
Now due to the COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent economic fallout, city officials have again started talking congestion pricing on their urban highways or even in the downtown regions. Of course, they say it will reduce congestion, but in reality, cities likely want the cash other projects that cannot pay for themselves, such as public transit and bike lanes.
In May, the Eno Center for Transportation issued a report concerning congestion pricing principles for US cities. The Eno Center is a registered nonprofit and claims on its website that it provides government and industry leaders with timely research and an independent voice on policy issues.
That’s well and good, but pushing a study like this hurts motorists like you.
The report insists that congestion pricing needs to advance sustainability and equity, but how is that possible when cities and states are, now, due to the pandemic, more cash-strapped than ever. Many residents live in transit deserts and areas that don’t even have sidewalks. The only way out is by driving despite what planners and engineers might think otherwise. Pushing congestion pricing on already overburdened motorists will tip the iceberg for cities that try it.
When drivers divert to other roadways to avoid paying the toll tax, cities and towns will also feel the brunt due to increased congestion, traffic safety, and road maintenance issues due to the increase of heavy trucks.
New York City leads the way with congestion pricing. Officials plan to toll drivers if they venture south of 60th Street in Manhattan. The DOT currently awaits federal approval because some of those streets were built with federal highway funds. The city intends to use the cash paid by motorists to help pay for the failing Subway system.
The Bay Area of California will be taking up the issue next. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority will hold a Zoom online open house on Wednesday, August 26, at 6:00 pm (PDT) to discuss congestion pricing in downtown San Francisco. If you live in northern California and care about this issue, the NMA encourages you to attend.
Anti-car and Big Bike advocates such as San Francisco Transit Riders, the Bicycle Coalition, and Streetsblog San Francisco will have their supporters attend and provide oral comments en masse. Motorists need to have their voices heard too, and we encourage each of you to attend and make comments online.
Based on recent updates to their website, SFCTA is attempting to take advantage of the pandemic to accelerate the review of congestion cordon tolling under the auspices of “keeping the city moving.”
Of course, this ignores the fact that people are, by and large, choosing their own cars to travel now because of the risk of virus transmission. No CTA study has even suggested adding back previously-removed lane miles to the transportation system to address that mode shift.
Other cities that have urges toward congestion pricing include Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, DC (DC already has Express Lane Congestion Pricing).
The NMA encourages every motorist who lives in a city discussing congestion pricing to advocate and organize against such proposals.
Here are some eight strong objections that you can use:
- Congestion pricing schemes charge motorists variable fees for driving in certain areas at certain times of the day, such as morning and afternoon rush hour. Many people live farther outside of the city because they cannot afford housing near their place of business (especially true in the Bay Area). Congestion pricing might very well price them out again. An example: In 2018, single Virginia motorists using I-66 express lanes were hit with bills as high as $50 for commuting one-way on a 10-mile stretch between the Capital Beltway and the District of Columbia.
- Congestion pricing will encourage more motorists and truckers to take surface streets through cities and towns in the area—many of which are not made for this kind of volume. Traffic safety, road maintenance problems, neighborhood pass-throughs, and other issues will result.
- Price-surging can happen in mid-trip. You are already driving on the tolled highway, thinking you will be paying a certain amount, and the bill actually comes back much higher due to mid-trip price surging.
- Many times the extra cash gathered from this kind of tolling will not be used for road maintenance but instead pays for public transit and other forms of transportation that cannot pay for itself, such as bike lanes. For example, NYC is poised to bring in Manhattan congestion pricing in the next few years to pay for the subway system.
- Congestion pricing does not guarantee road safety and does not discourage driving. People drive for a reason. People want to drive more now due to the pandemic.
- More street surveillance will be implemented. Automated license plate readers (ALPRs) would likely be used for congestion pricing and cashless tolling. These devices will track your comings and goings. Governments could then sell the information to marketing firms to find out where and when you travel to better market products to you. Of course, law enforcement agencies could also use the additional ALPRs in the area.
- Goods and services will go up in the congestion pricing zone. Naturally, if service providers have to pay more to use the roads, the price will extend to customers.
- Congestion pricing is a tax and will hurt the middle class and lower-income motorists, especially now due to the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. For example, according to TaxFoundation.org, California currently has the highest gas tax in the country at 62.47 cents per gallon. Motorists are already stretched to the max with the gas tax, which supposedly pays for infrastructure, why push the burden onto motorists to fund other projects that cannot pay for themselves such as transit and bike lanes—shouldn’t everyone shoulder that burden?
Congestion pricing might just be the starting point for money schemes everywhere. Beware and wake up to these issues before it is already a done deal.
Here are some additional readings on the topic of congestion pricing from the NMA:
- NMA Tolls Issue Page
- NMA Principle Number 6: Reasonable highway user fees for maintaining and improving highways, not for financing non-highway projects
- Congestion Pricing Cannot be the Future of Transportation Funding, Part 1: NMA E-Newsletter #468
- Congestion Pricing Cannot be the Future of Transportation Funding, Part 2: NMA Weekly E-Newsletter #469
Want to keep track of the many issues currently involved in tolls and other infrastructure funding? Take a daily peek at the NMA’s Driving News Feed or subscribe to Driving News Daily Top 6 Headlines, a five times per week email.