Confronted With Congestion Pricing, People Clamor for Transit, Gas Tax

Three scenarios for congestion pricing: 1) priced lanes on all major highways, 2) a mileage charge levied on all roads and streets, and 3) priced zones. Image: MWCOG/Brookings

Could a congestion pricing program work in the DC region? Maybe. But first, officials would need to get the public on board — no easy task. A report on the conclusions from five public forums, held in the region between October 2011 and January 2012, suggest that more and better transportation options need to be in place before a congestion charge is levied, so that commuters feel they have options.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, together with the Brookings Institution, found that the 300 people they talked to are skeptical of any government plan to get more money, and are sorely undereducated about how transportation funding works. The study was funded by FHWA as a followup to a 2003 study to determine the technical viability and potential benefits of congestion pricing. Now they want to know the political viability of such an idea.

The biggest barrier to acceptance is the simple fact that people don’t understand transportation. The participants in the study didn’t know that funding was a problem or a cause of many of the inadequacies of the system. They didn’t know how much the gas tax is, that it doesn’t rise with inflation, or that it hasn’t changed in 20 years.

They don’t see themselves and their own driving as contributors to the problem of congestion. They blame construction and other drivers (especially those from “other jurisdictions” — DC and Virginia residents love to beat up on “Maryland drivers”) — anything but their own driving. They assume that congestion pricing can’t work because everyone on the road is there because they have to be. They don’t think they, or their fellow drivers, have choices in travel behavior.

The Washington region is relatively well-served by transit and ride-sharing, so many of them were probably wrong in assuming they don’t have options. Be that as it may, participants were supportive of adding new transportation options. Even the most car-centric people — those who live far outside the urban core and drive alone to work — thought it was important to build more transit and facilities for biking and walking.

In fact, these improvements were, to many, a prerequisite to any pricing change. It would be seen as a goodwill gesture from the government, to show that it’s not just making a “money grab.” If congestion pricing would bring about more travel choices, it would be worth it, respondents said. But those choices need to be in place before the cost of driving goes up, so that people can opt out from day one.

What they feared most was the implementation of a complex, opaque system that would charge them for doing something they think they have no choice but to do. They want to maintain control over their own lives and transportation — something they clearly have already lost, if they think they have no option but to drive alone on congested roads at rush hour.

If any congestion pricing plan is to be enacted, participants want to make sure there’s accountability and transparency on the government’s part, especially to show them what concrete benefits the changes would bring. They also want to know that such a change would be part of an integrated strategic planning process that would also include “land-use changes to reduce trip lengths and enhanced transit alternatives to serve the region’s growth and increasing densities.”

Participants were asked to consider three scenarios for congestion pricing:

Scenario 1: A Priced Lane Network — variably priced lanes on all freeways, as well as some other major roadways

Scenario 2: Pricing on All Roads and Streets — variable per-mile pricing using vehicle-based GPS systems

Scenario 3: Priced Zones – drivers pay a fee to enter or drive within a designated area

Over the course of the half-day workshops, filled with presentations and discussions of these three scenarios (as well as the underlying problem), support for Scenario 1 increased, support for Scenario 2 decreased, and people lost interest in Scenario 3.

Scenario 2 — a vehicle-miles-traveled fee — is often discussed as a possible replacement to the gas tax, but that didn’t help sell it to the focus groups: It was the least popular option by far. They found the mileage-based fee more confusing and less predictable than a gas tax. They worried that it would be “another unknown bill at the end of the month” and didn’t like the idea of not knowing at any given moment how much their commute would cost. They thought gas taxes had the benefit of encouraging fuel efficiency. And they didn’t think gas prices would go down if the gas tax were removed anyway.

People cautiously supported Scenario 1, hated Scenario 2 more the more they learned about it, and weren't very interested in Scenario 3. Image: MWCOG/Brookings

Participants thought the VMT system sounded too “Big Brother” and even “un-American.” They expressed disbelief: “You’re going to charge me just to go to the grocery store?” Clearly they don’t understand that the gas tax charges them wherever they go, too — just not enough.

A “priced lane network”  – Lexus lanes, as they’re sometimes called — generated some cautious interest. People thought it was a good option for when they’re running late, and that they’d have the choice of whether to pay more for a smoother and more predictable trip. Again, choice was a key factor — this option offers more choices, rather than simply charging more for the same choices.

People liked the idea of bus rapid transit being part of a new system of managed toll lanes — a new concept for most of them, but one that resonated. They worried congestion pricing might be unfair to low-income people or those who live far out in the suburbs and have a longer commute, but these equity concerns were fairly muted.

Perhaps they’re just getting used to tolling — “three out of the five most expensive projects in the National Capital Region recently completed or planned for the next six years are toll projects — Virginia’s two HOT lanes projects (on the Beltway and I-95 south of the Capital Beltway) and Maryland’s Intercounty Connector.” In fact, the public generally favors tolling over taxation. They think it’s more fair, since there’s a more direct connection between using the roads and paying for them, and it “represents freedom of choice; only users pay.”

Their preference for tolling, however, didn’t hold back their burst of enthusiasm for raising the gas tax. “Support for raising gas taxes nearly tripled between the beginning and end of the forums, once people learned more about it and considered congestion pricing alternatives.” Maybe the way to build public support for a gas tax hike is to present it as an alternative to more drastic changes.

Brookings and the TPB made several suggestions as to how governments could build support for congestion pricing, based on their focus groups and other experiences of road pricing around the world.

  • Emphasize the benefits, not just the costs. And be specific.
  • Conduct pilots or trials so people can experience the system before a final decision is made.
  • Educate the public about the transportation funding shortfall and the need for creative solutions.
  • You don’t need to educate people about congestion. They experience it every day. Tap into that experience to get them to frame the problem themselves. “If the public defines the problem they take ownership of it and will be more willing to make hard choices about how to solve it… Do not presume you know how to frame the issue or proposal.”
  • Keep it simple. People are wary of complex schemes and are more likely to support simple solutions — like raising the gas tax.
  • Acknowledge people’s skepticism and rampant distrust of government. They’ve been paying for years into a transportation system everyone acknowledges is inadequate. They don’t know that they haven’t been paying enough — they blame public agencies for mismanaging the money.
  • Show the public that you have exhausted all other options.
  • Retain choice. Veterans of road pricing say citizens need the option to say no. “They need choices about how they get around, some of which are less expensive,” the report said. “The public will also push back against projects that appear designed to force behavior modifications.”
  • Recruit a champion. Politically, congestion pricing isn’t going to go anywhere without a popular political figure out front, leading the charge.