Variable Pricing at MTA Bridges and Tunnels Would Ease Traffic

throgsneck.jpgOver the past few weeks, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign has been collaborating with environmental economist Charles Komanoff to assess the impact of various value-pricing scenarios on travel patterns at MTA toll facilities, like the Throgs Neck Bridge, at right. From this week’s Mobilizing the Region:

A TSTC analysis recommends that the MTA enact variable tolls on its bridges and tunnels, which would create significant time savings for drivers. The MTA has proposed increasing its revenue from fares and tolls by 6.5% in early 2008, but has not yet determined the specifics of this increase.

In a memo sent to the MTA last month, the Tri-State Campaign recommended the MTA implement a $5.75 peak-hour toll between 6 am and 6 pm, the same time period the congestion pricing plan proposed in PlaNYC would be in effect. The off-peak toll would remain unchanged at $4.50. By encouraging some drivers to shift their trips to off-peak times, this toll scheme would reduce peak-hour traffic by 4.9-11.8 percent and save drivers 1.2 – 3.0 million hours a year. This reduction in total driving time would also create air quality benefits.

A $6.75 peak-hour toll charged during a narrower peak period (6-9 am inbound and 3-7 pm outbound), coupled with a $4.50 off-peak toll, would reduce peak-hour traffic by 3.7-10.8 percent and save drivers 0.5 to 1.5 million hours a year.

Both TSTC variable toll schemes would raise approximately the same amount of revenue as a 50-cent raise in the base one-way toll to $5.00. This flat toll hike would not create an incentive for drivers to avoid peak hours, and so would have very little effect on peak-hour traffic.

The MTA could also reduce congestion on its bridges and tunnels by doing away with its antiquated barrier-arm toll plazas and implementing high-speed electronic tolls. The Port Authority recently announced eventual implementation of cashless tolling on all of its bridges and tunnels. To view the memo, click here.

Photo: Globalglenn on Flickr

  • Sproule Love

    A one or two dollar peak use charge isn’t enough of a difference to change behavior. The peak toll should start at twice the non-peak toll, then be adjusted as needed to reach goal of reduced traffic.

    This is basic economics; if only our elected official had enough spine to try this out, motorists would quickly be won over by the traffic reduction. Who wouldn’t pay another $5-10 to avoid sitting in traffic for 30 minutes or more? Less traffic, less pollution, less waiting, more revenue for infrastructure…everyone wins.

  • Red

    Actually, basic economics, and the data, show that a small charge does change behavior (in a small way). The Port Authority’s one-dollar peak surcharge has resulted in measurable traffic shifts:

    When I used to take NJ Transit to and from the city to my then-home in New Jersey, I would often structure my day to take advantage of the lower off-peak fares, and the peak train fare is definitely not twice the off-peak fare.

    I assume what you’re getting at is that larger differentials would produce larger traffic shifts, which is obviously true. Though I’m not sure what the elasticity of driving would be – and I think a surer way to win motorists over, if that’s what you want to do, is to use HOT lanes, not toll hikes.

  • Dave

    I hope the MTA takes the opportunity to re-introduce two-way tolls on all crossings (or at least GWB, Holland and Lincoln tunnels and especially V-N bridge) to eliminate toll shopping.
    With EZ-Pass readers this is a simple fix with easy benefits.

  • A seemingly obvious companion is to eliminate the 4.50 discount for using E-ZPass but it always sneaks through. It’s no longer needed as an incentive;75% of drivers use it because it saves time. You couldn’t pry it away from them. Perhaps it could be retained for weekends, when more of the ocasional motorists dont’ now have E-ZPass. The ccompelling logic of peak hour tolls demonstrates the importance of conestion pricing being implemented on all river crosings into Manhattan simultaeosly. If separate and different charge on Manhattan streets, as proposed dby the Mayor, the unequal prices would contube to distort travel patterns, clogging streets by motorists loking for chapest routes.

  • YIKES! My comment got sent before spellcheck!
    Here’s what I meant:

    The compelling logic of peak hour tolls underscores the importance of congestion pricing being implemented on all river crossings into Manhattan simultaneously. If the fee is a separate and different charge on Manhattan streets, as proposed by the Mayor, the unequal prices would contube to distort travel patterns, clogging streets by motorists looking for the cheapest routes. Therefore, it makes sense to wrap the congestion pricing program under the MTA blanket, subjecting all to public review (unlike the unilateral rate-setting powers proposed for SMART.)

    A seemingly obvious but repeatedly dismissed, companion is to eliminate the 50 cent discount for using E-ZPass. It’s no longer needed as an incentive; 75% of drivers use it because it saves time. You couldn’t pry it away from them. Perhaps it could be retained for weekends, when more of the ocasional motorists don’t now have E-ZPass.

  • michael

    What about the enormous price differential of the one way toll on the veranzano. We’re paying people to drive through Brooklyn and Manhattan. That’s an easy way to raise revenue.

  • Michael Cairl

    The time is absolutely right for a package deal of value pricing and highway-speed electronic toll collection. The Port Authority already has highway-speed (45 mph) E-ZPass lanes at the Outerbridge Crossing, and numerous toll roads (Delaware Turnpike, Illinois Tollway, others) have highway-speed barrier toll collection. There is no reason that the MTA could not, and should not, introduce highway-speed E-ZPass at its toll crossings, with the speed limit being appropriate to the location.
    The first installation should be at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and must be accompanied by reinstatement of two-way tolling. Far from creating congestion, as some Staten Islanders fear, the combination of highway-speed E-ZPass and two-way toll collection would reduce congestion and speed traffic.
    Value pricing is a necessary component of spreading traffic flow more evenly throughout the day. The only way to maximize capacity on existing highways and transit facilities is to give people an incentive to travel, and even to work, at non-traditional hours.

  • Sproule Love

    Thanks for the informative link, Red. In my earlier post, I wasn’t simply saying the larger toll differentials produce larger results. I was saying the the demand for driving is quite price inelastic, so meaningful results require large differentials. This is borne out by the report you link to. It says that the 20% discount for off peak EZ Pass resulted in a 7% of morning drivers to the 5-6am hour before peak tolls kick in and a 4% shift in evening drivers to a later hour, but no overall reduction in traffic.

    I think any meaningful shift in usage or, more to the point, a reduction in total trips will only be accomplished by a larger differential in tolls. HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes are toll hikes, essentially, and they seem like a half-measure at best that only marginally improves on HOV lanes, which we know are not effective. Here’s a link that explains HOT lanes more fully:

    Clearly, as others have stated, we have the technology and the advantage of our geographic situation as an island to implement a more sophisticated tolling system that could achieve our goals of less traffic and pollution in Manhattan and NYC in general.

    What we need now is the political will to eliminate loopholes like the East River and Verrazano crossings and to enact some initially uncomfortable policies that are proven to lessen traffic. An improved culture of flex-time would help, too.


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