Lawrence Solomon: Move into the fast lane

(December 7, 2012) The U.S. has pioneered dynamic pricing of highway toll lanes.

Some U.S. toll lanes are already dynamically priced to reduce ­congestion. U.S. Department of Transportation.

Some U.S. toll lanes are already dynamically priced to reduce ­congestion. U.S. Department of Transportation.

Toronto taxpayers face a 10-year, $500-million-plus bill to repair their badly crumbling and congested Gardiner Expressway, after which they would become owners of a badly patched and congested expressway. Other proposals for this 60-year-old money pit, such as replacing the elevated portion of the expressway with at-grade or below-grade roads, could cost taxpayers two to three times as much without relieving congestion — because the land adjacent to the expressway is fully developed, it can’t be widened to provide commuters with ­relief.

Taxpayers aren’t much better off in Montreal, Vancouver or fast-growing Calgary, which is now contemplating a $1-billion bill to contain ever-more frustrating traffic congestion.

Canada’s taxpayers have a better option, one that taxpayers around the world are increasingly adopting: Turning the expressways, and other roads, over to toll-road operators. Instead of taxpayers footing the bill for the roads, drivers would. To make the deal even sweeter for taxpayers, they would get a share of the toll revenue.

To also make it sweet for drivers, the toll roads operate electronically via transponders and eliminate congestion by varying the toll on the fly. Whenever the road has spare capacity, the toll drops to draw in more drivers; as the road starts to become congested, the price progressively bumps up to peel drivers off as necessary. Such dynamically priced roads are free-flowing, able to guarantee their customers a congestion-free drive without worrying that a traffic jam will cause them to arrive late for work, or miss their flight, or pay hefty late penalties at the daycare.

Georgia’s Interstate 85 provides one model of how dynamic prices can work their magic. In previous years, commuters in the metropolitan Atlanta area often needed an hour and a half to get to work during rush hour and yet relief for them seemed impossible — as with Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, the land adjacent to the I-85 freeway was too built up to allow the road to be widened.

Then Georgia’s road authorities reasoned that if the road system couldn’t become more extensive by building out another lane, it would need to become more intensive by increasing the throughput on existing lanes. The highway’s outside lane, previously reserved for high-occupancy vehicles, was converted to also allow toll-paying customers over a 16-mile stretch of the highway.

Last October, when the tolled lanes — dubbed the Express Lanes — made their debut as dynamically priced lanes, they attracted a ton of bad publicity from drivers angry at having to pay a toll and angry at bureaucratic bungles that accompanied the new service. Many swore they would never use the road and at first many didn’t — drivers made just 7,237 trips on an average weekday that first month, paying an average of $1.19 per trip. Soon, the kinks in the service began to be cleared up and drivers in the slow lanes, seeing cars zip by them in the Express Lanes, mellowed in their opposition.

By January of this year, the average weekday saw 11,623 trips, and drivers were paying an average of $1.26 per trip. Over the course of the year, more and more people decided to give the fast lane a try, particularly when they needed to be somewhere on time, leading to a steady increase in use of the Express Lane as well as an increase in the toll that customers were willing to pay.

By October of this year, the most recent month for which figures are available from the Georgia Road and Tollway Authority, drivers were making 17,701 daily trips, more than twice as many as at the start, and paying an average of $1.51 a trip, typically over $5.00 at rush hour. Friday morning’s rush hour set a new high of $6.35 for the 16-mile trip.

The Express Lanes now reach their capacity during the morning peak, often moving an impressive 1,800 to 2,000 vehicles per lane per hour without the enervating congestion of old. Opposition to the toll road has all but disappeared.

Because of Georgia’s need for money to fund its road system and because of the system’s success — in the first year the number of drivers acquiring transponders hit 100,000, triple the 35,000 predicted, and the number now exceeds 150,000 — Georgia will be relying more and more on electronic tolls in the years to come, as will much of the US. Over 20 metropolitan areas in the U.S. are either planning some form of automobile tolling or already have it in place, in all cases to increase effective road capacity, provide relief for taxpayers, and provide more choices for drivers.

As impressive as are the U.S. schemes, they lag behind Singapore, the first city in the world to implement electronic road pricing and still the leader. Because this highly populated island nation doesn’t have the luxury of sprawling — roads already account for 13% of its land area, about the same as housing — it has been forced to be land efficient as well as cost effective.

Thanks to the road system’s efficiency, the Singapore government has been able to reduce its overall take for roads — it cut taxes related to roads (the island’s road tax and vehicle registration fees) by far more than it increased tolls raised from drivers. Trials now underway in Singapore are preparing for a next-generation efficiency that will toll vehicles dynamically based on congestion and distance along city streets across the entire island.

The EU, too, is moving in this direction — a meeting in Berlin this week had as a focus congestion pricing of automobiles in EU cities, both to relieve traffic and to improve air quality.

Roads are modernizing through tolls that simultaneously improve economies and benefit taxpayers. Rather than throwing more good money at bad roads, Canadian governments should abandon their current dead end and go with the free-flowing roads.

This article was first published by the National Post.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Energy Probe and the author of Toronto Sprawls (University of Toronto Press). He is also a director of PEMA, a non-profit that owns satellite toll road technology.

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