Congestion pricing is not just slanted toward the elite

From Luz Lazo at The Washington Post:

The average user [of the optional toll lanes] is younger than 45 and has a household income of less than $100,000 a year, according to a new survey.

About 60 percent of the frequent users said they have household incomes of less than $100,000, and a similar share have a bachelor’s degree or higher. About one-third of those users said they don’t mind the tolls because their employers pick up the bill, according to the survey.

And this:

They are loyal Amazon customers who get a package from the online retailer at least once a month.

“They don’t mind paying a fee for convenience services and similarly don’t mind paying for tolls,” Bell said.

Congestion pricing in the D.C. area has been a major success.  And many of its benefits are overlooked.  Consider me, a relatively well-educated and high-income user of the roads.  After a few years, I still can’t figure out how to use the new Beltway lanes, and when they let me get off where I want to, or not.  So I have never used them once.  Still, they clear the rest of the road for me.


" according to the survey commissioned by Transurban, the company that operates the 495 and 95 Express Lanes."

Let's see the full breakdown. How many have incomes under 50k? 25k?

Yeah, I liked how "under $100k" was inferred to be "low income". Eye of the beholder, I suppose...

Anyone else think toll roads are an inferior good?

These are among the highest median income counties in the US, the $100k threshold is more reasonable here than it would be in most of the US:

Mời các bạn xem và chia sẻ kỷ niệm vui vừa qua nhé.

There's also a very lower bound here. Very low income people will be less likely to have a car and need to use the roads daily (except maybe indirectly via bus or carpool). The commuting class here will exclude people too poor to have a car as well as people so rich they would only travel by helicopter or motorcade.

This same dynamic was established when the 91 Express Lanes -- America's first fully automated toll road -- opened more than 20 years ago.

Immediately dubbed "Lexus lanes" by critics, the proof was far more logical: They were the lanes used by those who placed a high value on their time in the moment. For an independent contractor trying to squeeze in one more job a day, the lanes may have made sense every day. For a regular commuter, they may have made sense only when they wanted to catch their kid's Little League game.

Another solution, such as is done with electricity and water, is to build more supply, Edwin Moses style of NYC. You can build overpass roads over existing roads, such as done in the old "Whitehurst" freeway in DC (now torn down and part of the C&O canal, which was saved from further development by the old maverick and great dissenter Supreme Court W.O. Douglass, an ardent environmentalist: 'Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), is a Supreme Court of the United States case on ... alleged any injury. The case prompted a famous dissent by Justice William O. Douglas arguing that trees should be granted legal personhood.'). Or you can build through old established neighborhoods, NYC style, cutting them in two with an occasional pedestrian overpass or bridge, as was done in I-66, which took about 40 years to plan and open due to NIMBY activism.

In the Philippines, most highways except the toll road that runs from Manila to the north are about as wide as most US residential streets, or sometimes about twice as wide as the average US garage driveway, so be thankful you can travel fast in the USA and even travel to the tops of mountains for you lazy people who don't like to walk. The average speed here is about 20 mph = 30 kph due to narrow roads, dogs, kids, obstructions, such as the annoying habit of squatters building right up the the side of the road.

Bonus trivia: William O. Douglas married four times, the fourth time to a woman many decades his younger, I believe 40 years younger, a student or intern. My kind of man! Some in Congress considered impeaching him on moral grounds but that's probably unconstitutional, though Sup. Ct. justice Abe Fortas was shamed into resigning.

I did not know you could impeach US lifetime judges, like US Supreme Court judges, but apparently you can under the "good behavior" clause. Interesting, since I already knew you cannot remove a judge who is senile (there was a rumor of one such judge in the 9th circuit who refused to resign) (Wikipedia: William O. Douglas was the subject of hearings twice, in 1953 and again in 1970; and Abe Fortas resigned while hearings were being organized in 1969), but they did not reach a vote in the House. No mechanism exists for removing a justice who is permanently incapacitated by illness or injury, but unable (or unwilling) to resign.)

What Fortas resigned over, being on a retainer while a sitting judge, was not uncommon (Douglass himself was on one), and public knowledge (note Fortas recused himself when the retainer would conflict with his judgment). It's interesting the "Jewish seat" that Fortas represented on SCOTUS in the 1960s was not refilled until Ruth Ginsburg in the 1990s.

U lern something new everyday...

> Another solution, such as is done with electricity and water, is to build more supply

Alas, this does not work, unless the supply is is priced correctly.

If you have a two-lane road that takes 30 minutes to drive down due to traffic, and you expand it to a four-lane road, it will take 29 minutes to drive down, because - being twice as wide - it will be used by twice as many people.

We see this pattern of development happening again and again. It is avoidable, but only in very specific circumstances.

I agree with you Shieldfoss, but I would argue that building more supply DOES work, it's just wasteful. Building more roads (and I think it's Robert Moses, the NYC planner, not Edwin) without pricing them means that it encourages more people to buy cars rather than use mass transit. That's why it is said the personal car and trucking business in the USA gets an unfair subsidy over freight railroads, which get no such public subsidy.

Agreed. The economics in favour of road pricing are clear. I just expect, on average, the poor will take a hit relative to status quo.

"If you have a two-lane road that takes 30 minutes to drive down due to traffic, and you expand it to a four-lane road, it will take 29 minutes to drive down, because - being twice as wide - it will be used by twice as many people."

Maybe, but the extra cars came from somewhere. In this example, a lot of traffic was pulled away from side streets and moved to the freeway. Which generally results in less car wrecks, since the frequency of accidents is lower on freeways. Particularly the common rear end collision from traffic stopped at red lights, etc.

If it moves twice as many people, even only at marginally faster speeds, that is a big win right there.

"Cars just show up to use the roads, so don't build more roads" is a self-defeating proposition.

This argument is never applied to other kinds of transit, either."If you build a good subway system, people will like it and ride it a lot so it'll be too crowded and it won't be good, therefore you shouldn't build it at all." Sounds kinda nutty, no?

God that is a fantastic rejoinder! Thank you!
My suspicion is that, could we actually build double decker freeways here in LA we would actually help congestion amazingly. Politically it would be hard, but I'll just bet it would work logistically.

@UF - yes, that would work, albeit it's unattractive to NIMBY types and a bit expensive, though for a rich city like LA not a problem. Even here in the Philippines they use elevated roads, so if a Third World country can afford it, so can the USA. The famous (still in use!) George Washington Bridge in NYC was converted into a "double decker" roadway that doubled its carrying capacity.

Well I suppose the question might be will the congestion pricing toll approach lead to innovation in road and other transportation technology improvements?

Yes, Manila (and other places in the Philippines) has some serious congestion problems. Perhaps some there will work on some innovative solutions -- the whole restricting traffic (or non-driving day for the car) really is not a solution. It is simply the stick government enjoys using too often.

The average car owner in the DC region does not own a Porsche, meaning that it is impossible for an average Porsche owner to be an average user of such schemes - depending on how one emphasizes average.

Averages are so useful when discussing policy that favors those with the wealth to pay to get to the head of the line. After all, those Porsche drivers are just a drop in the bucket, undoubtedly. Even though if one where to use another measure - say, how many Porsche owners use such lanes as a percentage of Porsche owners in the region compared to Hyundai - one might just be able to say that congestion pricing is slanted toward Porsche owner.

It helps everyone at no cost to the taxpayer, and those who benefit the most pay the whole bill while those who benefit less pay nothing. Furthermore, there is evidence that the lanes can relieve congestion in the existing lanes even better than simply adding new lanes entirely at taxpayer expense.

You did read the article, right? - 'The two express lane systems are part of a growing network of toll lanes in Northern Virginia that is expected to grow to 90 miles by 2022. The newest entrant, the 66 Express Lanes, opened in December, with 10 miles of rush-hour, peak direction toll lanes that have yielded some of the highest tolls in the country — $47 one way. That system is directly operated by the state.'

And this is one very carefully written passage - 'I still can’t figure out how to use the new Beltway lanes, and when they let me get off where I want to, or not. So I have never used them once.'

The route most relevant between the two GMU campuses (and the Fairfax City area in general) is 66 - no Beltway involved at all. Just the Commonwealth government operating a toll road that just might actually happen to have been used by Prof. Cowen.

Wait, so your argument is: 'Infrastructure that improves everyone's lives is suspicious if the wealthy also can take advantage of it'? I think you might be missing the primary effect of wealth, which is to lower your barriers to take advantage of opportunities of all kinds. You are also perhaps missing the point of user fees: if your concern is that the wealthy are disproportionately advantaged by toll roads, then console yourself with the knowledge that if that's true then they're also now paying disproportionately for the road system.

'You are also perhaps missing the point of user fees'

You did see that the congestion pricing toll road that Prof. Cowen quite likely has used getting between the GMU Arlington campus and the Fairfax one has already been paid for by taxpayers, right?

'if that's true then they're also now paying disproportionately for the road system'

Not even close - 66 is financed primarily through gas taxes. The tolls are merely a way to generate some tiny amount of revenue while allowing those willing to pay an opportunity to arrive earlier at their destination.

And here is some of what those tolls are paying for - 'A new express bus service to the Pentagon, on-demand shuttles to park-and-ride lots in Prince William County, better bike parking in Manassas, and a campaign to get more people to carpool or take transit are among the Virginia projects that will be funded this year through toll revenue from Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway.'

Sounds impressive, right? Let's go to the second paragraph - 'The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission is scheduled to approve $12 million in projects Thursday night, including two new bus routes, improvements on three other bus routes and expanded access to park-and-ride lots. Another project included would expand Capital BikeShare around the Vienna and Dunn Loring Metro stations.'

12 million dollars - oh yes, that sounds like those paying the tolls paying disproportionately for the road system.

By the way, I'm not sure why you are bringing up Porsches? The average household income in that area is above $100,000/yr

Porsches are high performance vehicles that are basically never used to transport children from and to various destinations, though there are some Porsche SUVs these days.

In fact the Porsche SUV accounts for the vast majority of Porsches nowadays. Its main distinction from other luxury SUVs is just the Porsche branding. They have to keep making the sports cars so that people will continue to think the SUVs are cool by association. But the Porsche company would not exist without the SUVs to make all the profit.

Good point by Anonymous. The DC area has something like 7 out of the top 10 countries by average wealth in the USA. All the Greek-Americans I know there--all of them--are multimillionaires, some of them have tens of millions. My family got into DC in the 1950s, bought real estate that by luck happened to be near the DC metro subway, and now they're in the top 1% (min net worth $10M) and never worked for a high salary. But everybody I know who's been in DC for a while, even African-Americans, are millionaires. The only people in DC that are relatively poor are recent transplants from outside the area, typically students on their first job. The blue collar workers are especially rich, servicing white collar Washingtonians who don't know how to replace a toilet bowl fixture.

Tyler, do you not have a GPS which understands the beltway lanes (whatever they are)?

Even Waze doesn't understand them

This is a feature, not to be confused with a bug.

Google maps certainly doesn't understand them. It is always trying to direct me to take the the express lanes, even when there is almost no traffic in the regular lanes. The only way to stop this is to turn on the "disable travel on toll roads" feature, but then google maps will never direct you to travel on the toll road (aka 267). There needs to be some settings such as "travel on tolls roads like 267 which are the only way to travel and have small tolls of less than $5.00, but don't direct me to travel on toll roads that cost >$20 and same me less than 1 minute of travel time"

>>There needs to be some settings such as "travel on tolls roads like 267 which are the only way to travel and have small tolls of less than $5.00, but don't direct me to travel on toll roads that cost >$20 and same me less than 1 minute of travel time"

I agree with this on principle, but it would be a useless feature to consumers who have trouble expressing their thoughts in coherent English to start with.

May it a wheel, with the higher number being a price threshold. Most people would keep it at 1, some would crank it to the highest number and others would choose something in the middle.

I believe US - GPS does not have the resolution to distinguish car lanes. Europe GPS "Galileo" is working on a higher resolution that will.

"About one-third of those users said they don’t mind the tolls because their employers pick up the bill. "

Non-taxable benefits? =)

If people in positions of power are really worried about traffic congestion, they should consider "calling people into the office" to be something that should only occur if physically necessary, such as for a medcial exam. Even then, make as sure as practically possible that numerous follow up appointments are kept to the absolute minimum.

Administration is really bad at this. I know of an instance where a US citizen on secondment here in the UK was summonsed to sign a paper at the US embassy in London, about 300 miles away, even though there were US registered notaries in the local town.

It may be a fun thing to do to spend other people's time, and the effect on the environment may be very diffuse. But if this goes on long enough all the small insults to the environment caused by movement of bodies will add up and there will be more and more extreme weather events. If they don't affect the professional getting off on having people "popping" all over the place, they will affect his children and grandchildren.

Maybe there were once sentient beings on Venus. Look at the place now.

I use the toll lanes most of the time when I’m on that side. My thinking is:

- if the toll is high, traffic is bad and it will save me more time.

- if the toll is low it’s not much money and there is still a benefit in not being in the lanes with people zig zagging and trying to hit exit ramps they are almost past. Plus you can’t predict when an accident will happen and what looked like a smooth ride suddenly becomes an hour at a standstill.

Maybe worth noting that once I’m over the bridge I’m usually heading for Richmond or Norfolk. If bound for anyplace before the 495/95 split I usually stick with the regular lanes.

it will save me more time.

That time that you save, what do you do with it? Does it go into a time piggy-bank and then get used for an extra day of vacation in Cozumel? How long can time be saved? Do you have an accounting of the time that you've saved through the years? Do you remember that fifteen minutes of time that you saved in 2004 and what you did with it?

What exactly is your proposed alternative? If you like sitting in traffic that much, I think you might enjoy trying a medically induced coma. It's just like being in traffic, but way better for the environment.

There are many ways to make productive use of traffic time these days: podcasts, ebooks, or business phone calls, for example. Spending 15 minutes per day on a foreign language podcast or on chapters of an ebook can pay significant intellectual dividends over the course of a year - and all the while you can still save up the money you would be using on tolls.

Actually, for a significant number of commuters, the daily trip to and from work is the best part of their day. Dealing with traffic is the only non-vicarious excitement they're probably going to see. Safely ensconced in the SUV the driver is free to listen to whatever they wish on the radio, forget about a domineering and obnoxious boss, be unbothered by demanding children and able to chat with friends over the magic phone. And still get to complain about traffic when the trip is over.

What do I do with the time? What I intended to in the first place.

For example, attend the dinner in Norfolk as planned, instead of sitting and waiting to get past 123 and rolling onto Granby St just as the waiter is clearing dessert.

My (forthcoming Mercatus policy essay) adds some more numbers to this anecdote: Routes parallel to the I-66 toll lanes saw about a 10% traffic improvement compared to the previous year based on VDOT data. Somewhat explains Tyler's experience.

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