BY BETSY STREISAND
"[S]ince 1986, car travel has increased almost 40 percent, while highway capacity has barely grown," and "Gridlock costs Americans roughly the equivalent of $51 billion a year in lost wages and wasted fuel...the situation is only going to get worse."
The author suggests that a possible remedy is "peak-period pricing," which means charging drivers for access to highways during peak times.
"This simple idea (peak-load pricing) isn't new. But it hasn't been adopted on a single public road because politicians know it would be career suicide to force Americans to pay for something they've long had for free. Instead, they embrace solutions that are more politically palatable than they are effective. They include:
Building more roads. Sounds good. But additional roads inevitably produce what traffic expert Anthony Downs in his book Stuck in Traffic calls "triple convergence." More commuters come--from other roads, from mass transit and from new developments. Soon, the new roads are as crowded as the old. Los Angeles is a monument to this phenomenon.
Bolstering mass transit. Even if Americans could learn to rely on buses and trains--and that's a huge if--workplaces are now so spread out in the suburbs that connecting all the dots with buses or other transports in affordable and convenient routes is nearly impossible. This makes perfect sense. Suburbs were designed with drivers in mind. If the number of mass-transit users miraculously doubled, they still would constitute only 10 percent of commuters.
Developing "smart cars" and highways. The federal government is spending millions a year to develop an intelligent-vehicle highway system. It would involve a network of road sensors and computers that would feed traffic information to car TV screens, warning of trouble spots. Sounds impressive, in a Jetsons sort of way. But its limitations are obvious: Drivers will head for open roads, relocating but not reducing congestion.
The story proposes the " more drastic solution of putting a price on the rush-hour commute. Peak-period pricing would turn all major metropolitan arteries into toll roads, with prices high enough to keep traffic moving steadily. During slow times, tolls would be cut or eliminated. Tolls could be collected easily, thanks to new technology that lets sensors read signals from small transponders inside the car. Fees would be debited from prepaid accounts. "
The story has two interesting snippets of data, one is a report on an operating toll road in California which uses peak-load pricing:
"About a year ago, a 10-mile, four-lane, fully automated toll road (the nation's first) replaced the median on the 91 Freeway in Orange County (California), one of the busiest roads in the country. With a peak one-way toll of $2.50, the privately operated 91 Express Lanes are some of the most expensive 10 miles of road to travel in the United States. Yet they attract roughly 30,000 cars a day and have produced some surprising results.
Rather than becoming "Lexus Lanes" for well-off commuters, as expected, express lanes are a mirror of the freeway as a whole, attracting drivers from all income brackets, according to surveys by the California Private Transportation Co., which built the $126 million road. For many working parents, a $2.50 toll is preferable to steep overtime charges for day care. The fast lanes also are popular with independent contractors and other workers who are paid by the job. "
IN LOS ANGELES
Here's how much time drivers waste each year sitting in traffic in the nation's most congested cities.
CITY / HOURS LOST
Washington, DC 70
San Francisco--Oakland 66
Los Angeles 65
New York 39
Source: Texas Department of Transportation