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Tolling Points

Massachusetts Considers Congestion Pricing to Counter Epic Gridlock

By: 
Bill Cramer

Anyone who spends too much time stuck in traffic congestion can tell you how loudly the problem demands a solution.

When many thousands of commuters hear that voice twice a day, every workday and even during weekends, the momentum for change eventually becomes a torrent.

And when that happens, elected representatives who are smart and responsive hear the call and resolve to do something about it.

That’s what’s happening in Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker has been taking a new look at congestion pricing as a solution to epic gridlock in and around Boston. Indeed, he is in good company: with New York City working to implement a congestion pricing plan, Seattle considering it, and Chicago and Washington, DC starting the conversation. Freer-flowing traffic is emerging as the latest advantage an all-electronic tollway can offer the biggest, busiest, most congested cities in the United States.

The Tipping Point

In early August, Baker’s administration acknowledged that things had reached a “tipping point”.  
As commuters well knew, congestion had been getting worse since 2013. And now, a state report showed snarled traffic was harming the region’s productivity, making it harder for people to get to their jobs.

Any tolling agency could have predicted what came next. Everyone in the industry knows that tolling is about giving customers more options—that you make the decision to pay for faster, more reliable highway access when you simply have to get there on time.

Getting to work or a job interview on time definitely qualifies. So does the homeward commute, with a child waiting to be picked up at day care or getting to a Red Sox or Bruins game on time.

The state identified managed lanes and bus-only roadways as a solution to a long-standing regional problem. “No one likes traffic and congestion, period, and it’s a frustrating and inconvenient reality for too many people,” Baker said.

Learning from Wider Experience

Within the month, Baker was hosting a governors’ summit in Boston, where he joined with National Governors’ Association Chair and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu to discuss infrastructure as a foundation for states’ success. Traffic congestion was a major focal point for the discussion, and key transportation industry partners were part of the conversation to share their knowledge and experience.

“Continued economic growth has underscored the importance of our ongoing work in Massachusetts to make historic investments in the transportation system to increase capacity and improve reliability,” Baker said.

“In the states, there are still leaders who are willing to work together across party lines to take on the big problems, including the urgent need to rebuild, repair, and modernize America’s infrastructure to meet the needs of the 21st century,” Hogan added.

“Reducing traffic congestion and making public transit more accessible and affordable will have a big impact on both our regional economy and our quality of life,” Raimondo noted. “Bipartisan cooperation among governors is essential to ensuring progress doesn’t stop at our state borders.”

Managed Lanes a ‘Proven Intervention’

Baker’s motivation for considering managed lanes is to deal with a long-standing infrastructure crisis. But he said the element of consumer choice was what drew him to the plan, along with the advantage those choices would deliver for drivers in the general purpose lanes.

"States create a separate new lane on a highway with severe congestion that's tolled alongside no-toll roads so that drivers have options," he explained at a news conference. "While drivers have a choice to commute in a faster lane for a cost, drivers who remain in the un-tolled lanes will also experience lighter volume from those who peel off for the faster lane."

Earlier this month, WGBH Boston cited a strong endorsement for congestion pricing from UCLA urban planning professor Michael Manville.

“Almost anytime these managed lanes have been put in, you see traffic flowing much more smoothly, delay going down, and many more vehicles being moved in these managed lanes,” he said. “They are, at this point, a proven intervention.”

Transurban North America CEO Jennifer Aument added that, for many managed lane users, seeing is believing.

"Consumers are willing to pay a toll when they get real value for the toll they are paying," she told WGBH. “What we find in actual practice of express lanes across the country is that income is not a differentiator," with most customers paying less than $20 per month for the express lane services they need.

 

Newsletter publish date: 
Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 12:00

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