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The ‘Movie Ticket’ Theory of Transportation Pricing

3:35 PM EDT on September 10, 2009

Let's say you're at the movies, and you look up at the box office only to see no ticket prices listed. You know you're going to have to pay for the show eventually -- perhaps even during income-tax season -- but for now you can watch all you want, seemingly for free.

2777481403_e25bf63dde.jpg(Photo: Roloff via Flickr)

How many movies would you see? One, two ... or as many as you wanted to?

Former federal highway official Steve Lockwood presented that hypothetical at today's University of Virginia conference to illustrate the nation's wacky notion of transportation pricing.

"The reason we don't have a flexible dialogue when it comes to pricing is that we don't know how much things cost," he said.

Right now tolling is prohibited on existing interstate highway systems built with federal funds, with a few exceptions. But conference speakers on both ends of the political spectrum agreed that the transportation system must be priced more accurately in order to avoid catastrophic consequences.

In other words: It's time to start properly labeling the price of a movie ticket.

Douglas Foy, the former development secretary of Massachusetts, and transit critic Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation, sparred on many issued but agreed that any new highway capacity should include charges beyond the gas tax.

The comparison of film-going to driving is an imperfect one, to be sure, but the core need to inform the public about the consequences of decision-making applies to both activities.

"People love to believe they can be free riders," Jay-Etta Hecker of the Bipartisan Policy Center told conference attendees today. "People need to be educated that this isn't a free-rider system."

The federal effort to encourage sounder urban transportation pricing remains in its infancy, however. Mary Peters, George W. Bush's second transportation secretary, introduced the Urban Parternship Agreements (UPA) in 2007 to incentivize congestion mitigation efforts, but New York City lost its chance at the UPA cash after the state legislature voted down congestion pricing.

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