Seattle’s mayor has announced a vague proposal to toll downtown streets in order to relieve congestion. While the Antiplanner supports congestion pricing, I oppose cordon pricing, which is more of a revenue-raising scheme than a congestion-reduction program, and it isn’t yet clear which of these two the mayor is proposing.
Tolling has a bad reputation in Seattle because stiff penalties on people who failed to pay bridge tolls were so oppressive that they put some people into bankruptcy. At the same time, a well-designed tolling system can be good for low-income people, in the same way that they are better off paying market prices for groceries rather than having food allocated by the government, which generally results in little or no food available at all.
The downtown congestion that the mayor wants to fix is a problem of the city’s own making. Thanks to a variety of subsidies and incentives, the number of jobs in greater downtown Seattle — which covers a little more than 10 percent of the city — grew by 30 percent to 262,000 between 2010 and 2017. Although only a quarter of downtown employers drive to work, that’s more than the number who drive to work in downtown Portland, where more than half the employees commute by auto but has only around 100,000 jobs. Continue reading →
Some people have argued that a defect of high-occupancy/toll lanes is that they are expensive to install as they require their own on- and off-ramps in order to keep them separate from the general lanes. But–as the Antiplanner observed on a recent trip from Oregon to Texas–the Utah Department of Transportation has nearly 150 miles of HOT lanes that cost little more than ordinary freeway lanes.
Utah’s express lanes run along Interstate 15 from Spanish Forks (south of Provo) to South Ogden, about 72 miles in each direction. They are separated from the general lanes only by a double stripe. The “on- and off-ramps” consist of periodic replacement of the double stripes with dashed lines. Vehicles are free to enter and exit the express lanes where the lines are dashed, while they aren’t supposed to cross where there are two solid lines.
The consortium that paid $3.8 billion to lease the Indiana Tollroad filed for bankruptcy yesterday. The operators–a Spanish company named Cintra and an Australian company named Macquarie–said that revenues were up and costs down, but it wasn’t enough for them to keep up on their mortgage payments.
According to toll-advocate Robert Poole, the problem was that Cintra-Macquarie had structured its debt to require a large payment after ten years, but the recession prevented it from collecting enough money to meet that schedule. On the other hand, toll critic Terri Hall argues that the bankruptcy helps demonstrate that such leases are inappropriate and cronyistic.
Coincidentally, Poole and Hall debated tollroads and public-private partnerships at the American Dream conference in Denver last Friday. (The debate also included Greg Cohen of the American Highway User Alliance.) Hall argued that long-term leases allowed governors such as Indiana’s Mitch Daniels to collect and spend large sums of money during their administrations but left travelers paying heavy tolls for generations to come.
Years ago, Oregon voters approved a ballot measure that required a vote of the people before any local increase in taxes or user fees. As the Antiplanner supports user fees as a way of improving government efficiency, I asked one of the measure’s authors why he included user fees in the measure. “You know if they were exempted that local governments would just claim every tax increase was a user fee.”
It seems to me that user fees can clearly be distinguished from taxes: fees go to the use for which they are paid while taxes go for other uses. That question might be settled by a recent lawsuit filed against the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, which is Dulles Toll Road in order to raise money to build the Silver Line extension of the Washington Metrorail system.