Two Ways to Tell the Story of Congestion Pricing

This Monday the Washington Post ran a long feature on page A1, "Letting the Market Drive Transportation," about the Bush administration’s attempts to shift financing for roads from the gas tax to user fees, and starve transit in the process. The cast of characters includes a pair of conservative ideologues, Tyler Duvall and D.J. Gribbin, high up in U.S. DOT, as well as Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who earned the enmity of alternative transportation advocates last summer when she said bikes aren’t transportation.

The article tells how this troika came up with the plan to seed pricing in five pilot cities, and delves into their ulterior motives:

For Gribbin, Duvall and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters,
the goal is not just to combat congestion but to upend the traditional
way transportation projects are funded in this country. They believe
that tolls paid by motorists, not tax dollars, should be used to
construct and maintain roads.

They and other political appointees have spent the latter part of President Bush’s two terms laboring behind the scenes to shrink the federal role in road-building and public transportation.

On the face of it, the story meshes with some of the anti-pricing arguments New Yorkers have been hearing, especially from Representative Anthony Weiner, who has called pricing a conservative ploy to de-fund federal support for transit projects. That position has drawn ridicule from Mayor Bloomberg as he stumps for pricing, captured in the Observer’s account of yesterday’s Crain’s New York Business Breakfast Forum:

“I have nothing against any one congressman [but] that is one of the stupider things I’ve ever heard said. Forget the fact that he’s one of the congressmen who’s supposed to get the money for us. The Democrats control — his party controls Congress — what’s he talking about? Number two, by that argument, we should cut all the taxes, which some people would like, and then just sit here and wait to give us all the money back.

The Post story has already provided fodder for press accounts favorable to Weiner, like this Daily Politics post, which quotes the Queens congressman:

"I’m interested in solutions, not name calling. I respect the Mayor, but I don’t think the evidence supports trusting President Bush and his cabinet here. In Washington the Administration tries to cut money to roads and to cut mass transit, and then they come to New York City and say they won’t. I’m concerned that New Yorkers will get the short end of the stick." 

On close examination, however, the Post article omits several details that would have led to a different conclusion, namely: There is no inherent connection between pricing and reduced funding for transit.

To begin with, the article fails to note that pricing enjoys widespread support from transportation policy experts who, unlike the officials it profiles, believe pedestrians, bikes, and transit should have priority over cars. In New York, we’ve also seen green groups like the League of Conservation Voters and Environmental Defense rally to support pricing. And the two cities to initiate pricing most recently — Stockholm and "Red Ken" Livingstone’s London — did so under left-leaning leadership.

Clearly, there are (at least) two ways to tell the story of congestion pricing: one is to say traffic will be mitigated by allocating scarce road space more efficiently; the other narrative is about reclaiming city streets from the private auto, making motorists pay the cost of their own pollution while funding
alternatives that make it easier for people to get around without a car.

These two ways of viewing pricing are not mutually exclusive. However, the Post story shows how the Bush administration has conflated the first narrative with an anti-transit agenda, and with their belief in privatizing roads. But the article neglects what’s been going on in New York. Here, the advocates pushing pricing forward subscribe mostly to the second view, and the City and the Traffic Mitigation Commission have proposed using the revenue to support mass transit and livable streets.

Yes, local pricing advocates want the $354 million that Peters has been dangling in front of New York. But so what? In ten months she’ll be gone, and so will Gribbin and Duvall and their agenda. The real meat of transportation policy for the next five years, the highway re-authorization bill, will be decided after they leave. Congestion pricing could play a significant part in that bill, and it could go hand in hand with more money for bikes and transit if the story gets told right.

Rather than letting the Bush administration frame the issue, our elected leadership — especially people like Anthony Weiner and the rest of New York’s congressional delegation — needs to push the Livable Streets narrative of congestion pricing down in DC. Who has the vision to step out in front of this issue and define it as truly progressive transportation policy? Elected officials from Detroit and Phoenix certainly aren’t going to do it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Having motorists pay for the use of roads is not inherently anti-transit. If anything, this issue shows how the government has intervened in the market to redistribute income up.

    Imagine that over the past 100 years all that government road building, most of it paid for by general rather than gas taxes (especially at the state and local level) and some of it funded by taxes paid by private transit companies, had not taken place, and instead roads had been privately funded.

    Private companies would have done what they do in other cases — offer discounts to encourage use at off peak times, higher prices at peak, and volume discounts. Rather than continuing to build to try to meet demand until it became impossible and congestion soared, they would have built less and tried to manage demand.

    So at peak hours, you would have had billionaires and buses on the road, the latter (perhaps operated by the road owners) getting a volume discount based on their low road and parking space per passenger, the former paying through the nose.

    I chose public service as a career early on, but have become disillusioned — not that I have much better to say about business. The era when government intervened to increase equality and opportunity was a brief one, and has come to an end. Public institutions are entirely captured by the placard holders, the way business has been captured by rapacious executives to sit on each other’s boards and up each other’s pay.

    If the rush hour motorists won’t pay for the roads, then I and others far less off will have to. As in education, health care, social security, etc. we’ll be taxed more and more and get less and less.

  • It appears I posted my screed to the wrong thread!

  • Brian Turmail

    I think it’s important to note that the Post got it wrong about the Department’s position on transit. For example, this Administration has actually invested more money into more miles of new transit projects than any administration in history. It’s also increased funding for rural transit services by more than 70 percent.

    In addition, our Urban Partnership grants are designed to reduce traffic, improve the environment and enhance transit in five of America’s most congested cities. In New York alone, congestion pricing will generate over $350 million a year to support new transit facilities and services while significantly reducing CO2 emissions.

  • To me, the wonder is that the proposition that “tolls paid by motorists, not tax dollars, should be used to construct and maintain roads” is considered so outlandish. Do not the authors live in a market economy? Do they not get their food, their water, their blogs, and their other necessities, from private suppliers? Is the governmental system of supplying roads so good that it has to be taken for granted?

    Gabriel Roth
    [Editor of “Street Smart — Competition, Entrepreneurship and the Future of Roads”, which was included in Planetizen’s list of the Top 10 planning books of 2007.]

  • USDOT’s Urban Partnership Agreement Program has provided a valuable incentive for local leaders like Mayor Bloomberg to advance sensible congestion pricing on existing roads supporting better transit and smarter traffic management.

    Senator Hilary Clinton’s infrastructure policy statement several months ago called for increasing funding for that program. Let’s hope that more Congressional leaders and the next President will step forward to expand these kinds of performance-based funding strategies, rather than looking to just allocate more money without asking what results will flow from it.

    We can no longer afford to throw ever more funding for road and transit investments without first considering if these will help meet our goals, whether to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or to cut congestion and expand travel choices.

    It’s unfortunate that DOT Secretary Mary Peters has at times alienated many transit, bicycling, and smart growth advocates. Under her leadership, DOT has too often overlooked the role transit investments can play in economic development and how transportation policies and planning can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sprawl. But if the Urban Partnership Program suceeds in helping Mayor Bloomberg implement congestion pricing in New York, it will be a major advance for sustainable transportation policy in America.

  • I don’t have any problem with the concept that drivers should pay for the road system. The problem is, they already are much more than doing so.

    If you compare the total (Fed+State+Local) annual (capital + ops) expenditures for roads to the sum of all the tax payments made by drivers to government as a necessary condition (de facto or dejure) of their use of automobiles on roads, (i.e. user fees by any common understanding of the term) the tax payments exceed the road expenditures by amounts of most recently, in 2004, $66 billion. Thats a 45% government PROFIT from its roads operation.

    Chances are you don’t believe this. Check out the details and why at .



  • choking breather


    It is true that drivers pay more than what gets spent on road construction. But road construction is not the only cost of driving. Drivers will likely never pay enough to remedy the health effects of the air pollution they generate.

    Road pricing is a great idea, but it needs to be combined with an overall tax system that is progressive and far more transit than is being funded and planned. Right now, if you add up all of the taxes people pay, it is regressive. Having the poor subsidize the rich and then making it too expensive for them to drive is a terrible overall policy.

  • non-economist

    Shouldn’t the opportunity cost of the investment in road right of ways, parking, and infrastructure have to also be factored into the “cost” of automobile dependency? Otherwise it would seem to be like a the owner of a million dollar home with no mortgage believing his housing costs nothing.

    Not to mention the cost of defending the sources of oil..

  • Gizler

    Mayor Weiner would be a livable cities disaster. I’m not sure who would be better though.


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