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More on tollway congestion pricing

I’ve said before that I don’t have any theoretical objections to the concept of congestion pricing for the various toll roads and HOT lanes that cross or will cross our metro area. But the more I read about the “thinking” behind HCTRA’s recent botched attempt at it, the more I think that the powers that be here don’t have a clue about how to implement it.

Congestion pricing is not widely used in the United States and often has been derided as “Lexus lanes,” where those who can afford higher tolls cruise freely past slow-moving vehicles in regular lanes.

It got an icy response in Houston last month when drivers roared disapproval at a proposed increase from $1 to $2.50 on the Westpark Tollway during three hours of the morning and the evening. The plan has been shelved — for now.

[County Commissioner Steve] Radack, whose Precinct 3 includes the Westpark Tollway and will include future high-occupancy toll lanes on the Katy and Northwest freeways, said the increase recommended by consultant Wilbur Smith Associates was too much for too long.

A smaller increase for just an hour in each direction could have made a difference and been acceptable to users, he said.

Remember, this is Steve “Let them eat cake drive down Richmond!” Radack talking here. I’m pretty sure that kind of flipflop has been clinically shown to induce whiplash in laboratory rats. Blaming the consultant in the face of a fiasco like this is a time-honored tradition (and occasionally, it’s objectively correct), but let’s remember that this particular fiasco wouldn’t have been possible had even one member of our august Commissioners Court had the common sense to say “Hey, that’s an awfully big price increase covering an awful big time period” before it was approved. At least we can take comfort in the knowledge that Commissioner Radack’s hindsight does not require corrective lenses.

No decision has been made on whether congestion pricing will be used on toll lanes planned for the Katy and Northwest freeways, [County Judge Ed] Emmett said.

He said he does not expect the county to float the idea on the Westpark again before the Katy Freeway widening project is completed in March 2009. The freeway runs parallel to the Westpark Tollway about two miles to the north and is expected to relieve some of the Westpark pressure.

“Congestion pricing doesn’t work unless there is an alternative,” Emmett said. Unless drivers get some advantage by paying a toll, he said, “it becomes just a way to gouge the public.”

Once again, the grasp of the obvious here is breathtaking in its scope. Really, what can one say to this?

We’ll close with a slightly more subtle point here:

[T]he average speed for westbound drivers in the evening rush plummets from the 70s to below 10 mph in less than a mile, shortly before Fondren. They stay mostly under 30 mph until motorists pass Beltway 8, then shoot upward.

Radack said such slowdowns eventually will persuade drivers to accept congestion pricing.

“If you have a commute that should take 18 minutes, and it takes 48, think of the wear and tear on your car, and you may use up half a gallon of gasoline. It reaches a point where it becomes revenue-neutral,” he said.

“You pay Exxon or you pay the toll.”

Or you could – I know this is going to sound crazy, but stay with me here – live closer to where you work. Having a two-mile commute as opposed to a twenty-mile commute would do a lot to insulate one from the vicissitudes of traffic, tolls, and gas prices. Yes, this isn’t an option for everyone, but it is an option. And if one reason for moving to the burbs is cheaper housing, then at some point one needs to factor in transportation costs as well. I’m just saying.

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9 Comments

  1. Kevin Whited says:

    I’ve said before that I don’t have any theoretical objections to the concept of congestion pricing for the various toll roads and HOT lanes that cross or will cross our metro area.

    Well, you said that, yes. You also said that you don’t think economic incentives will get enough people to change their behavior in terms of commuting “during the 6-9 AM and 4-7 PM time frames.”

    But congestion pricing THEORETICALLY is based on the premise that people will indeed alter their behavior in response to economic incentives to do so.

    It is odd to claim to be FOR congestion pricing in theory and AGAINST the main economic premise behind the theory of congestion pricing.

    It’s one thing to criticize this bungled implementation of congestion pricing, for the reasons pointed out by Tory Gattis. But if you don’t believe that people will respond to economic incentives to alter their commuting behavior, then I don’t see how you can claim to favor congestion pricing in theory.

  2. First of all, I didn’t say I was for it. I said I wasn’t against it. It’s a subtle distinction, but one I’m sure you’re capable of making.

    Second, note the word “enough”. What I’m saying is that I would not oppose a non-stupid implementation of congestion pricing, but that I don’t think it would have a big effect. At least, as things stand right now – perhaps when the Katy Freeway and its HOT lanes are online, conditions will be more ripe for this sort of policy tweak. For the time being, I think the best you can do is spread some of the peak-period traffic over a longer interval. Which wouldn’t be a bad result, as long as one’s expectations are appropriate.

  3. Cory says:

    Or you could – I know this is going to sound crazy, but stay with me here – live closer to where you work. Having a two-mile commute as opposed to a twenty-mile commute would do a lot to insulate one from the vicissitudes of traffic, tolls, and gas prices. Yes, this isn’t an option for everyone, but it is an option. And if one reason for moving to the burbs is cheaper housing, then at some point one needs to factor in transportation costs as well. I’m just saying.

    Actually, given the price of real estate in Houston these days, its not an option for MOST.

    Sure there is the “white flight” contingent that lives in the suburbs Charles, but some of us live out there due to necessity. Affordability is a very big hammer that the outlying areas has over the City center, especially in Houston. The recent talk regarding “New Urbanism” and developers looking to price the poor out of the market aren’t going to help things any.

    The fact is, going along its current path, the Urban landscape of Houston future is looking more and more like a party for the exclusive few with the middle class and poor left to fend for themselves in the suburbs.

    Suggesting that people uproot from their homes to meet your criteria for ‘commute worthy’ expenditures is on the same level as “let them eat cake”.

    I know you don’t mean it that way….or, maybe you do?

  4. Cory, all I’m saying is that if you’re paying upwards of $100 a month just to commute to work (remember, folks who take the Westpark Toll Road in from Katy pay $6.50 a day for the round trip, which puts you at about $130 a month just for tolls), then the economic equation starts to change.

    I’m not suggesting anybody uproot. I am suggesting that as the cost of commuting increases, people will factor that into their decision about where they choose to live. It won’t be just a “pay HCTRA or pay Exxon” choice, as Commissioner Radack wants you to think.

  5. Marie says:

    This tollway was built right at the county line. The majority of Harris County residents or tollway users do not use the Westpark on a daily basis. This tollway is for Fort Bend County residents! Hell yeah they should pay their fair share. And Harris County residents and drivers should not subsidize Fort Bend County’s daily drive to work by increasing tolls countywide.

  6. Charles Hixon says:

    “You pay Exxon or you pay the toll.”

    Radack covets that anger his subjects hold toward big oil.

  7. Dennis says:

    The time frame for planning and implementing rail mass transit along the logical corridors in Houston is probably five to ten years. One would think that $3 gal gas would encourage people to maybe understand that Houston can’t continue to build freeways for single occupancy cars – and that we might need to move toward a more efficient system. We hear lots of anger about congestion pricing but not too much about actually building ways for us to get to work when the gas becomes unaffordable – or unavailable.

  8. Buhallin says:

    Living closer to your work is handy, but honestly not realistic for the long term for a vast majority of people.

    Even if you do choose to live closer, most people these days change jobs far more often than they change houses, and even businesses move. Can we really expect people to buy a new house to chase their place of employment?

    Plus, with many families working two jobs, which one do you get close to?

    It’s a nice plan, but one that is very, very difficult in practice.

  9. Charles Hixon says:

    Can we really expect people to buy a new house to chase their place of employment? That would be expensive. The realtors would love it.