April 10, 2009

Congestion pricing nonsense

I've been reading up a bit on congestion pricing of roadway capacity, the holy grail for not only raising additional capital for infrastructure but for cutting traffic on our overburdened roadways. Chris Bradford over at Austin Contrarian has done some great work explaining the models and the assumed results.

I just don't think I'm buying it. For one thing, there's this post about capacity actually creating congestion... note in the piece that time, population growth, etc. are irrelevant. The gist is that without a well developed limited access roadway (tollway, freeway, expressway) network and surface streets capable of moving the traffic rapidly off the system, additional capacity on one road will necessarily create additional congestion on another road. Here's the Austin based example...

For example, TxDOT is pushing ahead with plans to increase the capacity of 290 from Manor west to 183 by making it a limited access toll road. But the increased traffic flow on 290 will push thousands of more cars onto congested 183, where, once there, they really have no option. What's worse, the "improvement" will feed thousands more cars into already hypercongested I35. It's quite likely that the extra congestion on the much busier I35 and 183 will swamp any time savings on 290.

Uhm... not so much. The people who will use this route are already, you know, using it. There isn't a massive number of people clamoring for this improvement that aren't already using 290 (even the finance geeks said the traffic projections on this tollway were ass). Further, the reality of 35 and 183 is that traffic is going to continue to increase on these roads. It's going to get much worse as growth accelerates and therein lies the bigger issue. Texas has set it's taxes so low that immigrants (domestic and international) DO NOT pay for the increased burden they place on our infrastructure.

What I'D like to see discussed is the overall impact of congestion on people and on the infrastructure that isn't tolled, like surface roads. We already see a large spike in traffic on Balcones, Expo, Lamar, etc. because congestion is so bad on Mopac and 35. What will happen when we start congestion pricing on certain lanes of these roads? How much of the traffic going to be in the neighborhoods?

There is a local, real world proof for congestion pricing... 130. Once the 45SW connector between 130 and 35 near Creedmoor is complete, we will have a complete bypass to 35 through Austin metro. If we're really curious about all this, we should start keeping track of through traffic counts from 6-10 am and from 3-7pm from Georgetown through Onion Creek, then compare those numbers to post 45SW opening numbers.

If 130 takes more than 5% of the traffic off the road, I'll be impressed. But I want to see data. I had the idea, not too long ago, of making 130 free during rush hour to pull through traffic off 35. While it would not have completely alleviated the congestion, it would have gone a long way toward making it manageable. But that's not going to happen because 130 has already been sold off.

The other post from Chris that caught my eye was this one regarding congestion tolls on the last free bridges connecting Manhattan. Specifically...

Let's look at the free bridges into Manhattan. They are perpetually congested. Pricing them properly would eliminate the congestion (most of the time). As O'Toole very well knows, this is the economically efficient solution.

But congestion pricing does more than relieve congestion. Congestion pricing tells us when a road needs more capacity. Additional capacity costs money, and drivers are willing to pay only so much for it. That "so much" is exactly equal to the price they are willing to pay to avoid congestion. When the revenue collected by congestion pricing is low -- too low to finance new capacity -- we know we have enough capacity. Drivers aren't willing to pay for more, so building it would be wasteful.

On the other hand, If a properly priced road starts generating "too much" revenue -- enough to cover the cost of expanding capacity -- then it's time to figure out how to add the capacity users are willing to pay for.

It's the initial point I have a problem with... congestion pricing will eliminate congestion but not traffic which will find alternate routes. Manhattan's a bad point since your only other way onto the island in a car is via tolled bridge or tunnel. Still, you're not eliminating traffic, you're merely inconveniencing drivers by making them wait until the pricing declines or by forcing them to an alternate route. But it's not magic, traffic doesn't just disappear.

Here in Austin, that means a lot of angry people driving through neighborhoods on surface streets.

The debate on this needs to shift from 'cool' mechanisms and thought exercises to a realization that we all need to make some sacrifices to modernize our infrastructure. That's the best and most cost efficient way. It's going to be a combination of roads and rail. It's going to be expensive but it's something we can afford, especially if we want to continue economic expansion well into the 21st century.

And how about this... let's work on improving our connector, feeder and surface road capacity. Getting people on and off the limited access roads will go a long way to relieving a lot more congestion than additional tolled capacity. As ANYONE who has been heading to NW via 35 and the connector to 183 can tell you, that thing was NOT built for the demand being placed on it. Then there's the two lane connector from MoPac to 183 north which shrinks down to one lane.

Seriously, our biggest problem is bad fucking roadway design. Let's get that fixed, see what the problem is like then and at that time we can be open to pricing for congestion. Until then, it's all a meaningless intellectual exercise.

Posted by mcblogger at April 10, 2009 02:31 PM

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