Is More Mobility at Less Expense Possible?

By Will Toor and Dennis Polhill


In most arenas, we are used to the notion that you pay for what you get. Intuitively, we all understand that if you offer something for free that really has a cost, demand is going to exceed supply. Now, society has decided that some things should be collectively paid for with tax dollars. The two authors of this article have widely differing views on the appropriate levels of public expenditures in areas like education and health care.


One area where we do agree is that there would be great benefits – for our economy and our environment – in bringing more market forces to play in transportation. Currently, our roads are paid for by a complicated and irrational mix of funding sources including gas tax, sales tax, property tax, registration and other fees. Most parking spaces are paid through sales and property tax, or the cost is hidden in higher prices for goods and services. Gas tax revenues will continue to struggle to keep pace with construction cost inflation making maintenance of existing roads increasingly difficult.


Switching more of the costs of roads and parking to user fees, similar to how the gas tax once worked, would be fairer –those who use more should pay more and those who use less pay less.   User-fee systems can also help roads perform better by reducing congestion, reducing the need for infrastructure investments, increasing transit ridership and reducing emissions. Better transportation at less expense to taxpayers and an improved quality of life is truly a vision that all should unite behind.


Consider a congested freeway. When the lanes are free flowing, some can carry up to 2,000 vehicles an hour. When a lane gets overloaded, it switches to stop and go traffic, and the capacity drops dramatically, often moving close to a thousand vehicles an hour. When drivers are charged a toll that increases when traffic gets heavy, people make different decisions. Some switch trips to less congested times or take different routes. Others carpool or use transit. The highway keeps flowing freely, uncongested. SR 91 in Orange County, California provides an instructive example. This is a 12 lane highway, with 4 free lanes and 2 tolled express lanes in each direction. During rush hour, the free lanes crawl along at stop and go speeds, while the 2 express lanes carry nearly as many vehicles as the 4 free lanes.


Colorado has begun to move toward roadway pricing. In 2006, the I-25 HOV lane was converted to a High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane, selling unused capacity to toll paying drivers. Right now, one HOT lane in each direction is under construction along US 36 between Denver and Boulder. US 36 will combine a toll lane with Bus Rapid Transit service, allowing transit riders faster and more flexible service than they could get from a train, at much lower cost to build. If we had just added a free lane in each direction, the free lane would eventually fill up, giving no long-term benefits to drivers and there would be no platform for faster transit service.


The biggest benefits will come when we are ready to start pricing existing lanes. Since each tolled lane will generally carry more vehicles freely during rush hour, while providing a platform for bus rapid transit service, tolling existing lanes can provide benefits without having to pay to expand the highway! This would free up tax revenues and let toll revenue fund other improvements within the corridor instead of just paying for construction. The political climate and societal awareness of the benefits of market principles is evolving to embrace this kind of innovation – now is the time to start exploring future possibilities.


For example, as a next step, could we convert some existing lanes on large highways to managed lanes, while leaving some lanes free, as a cost effective and sustainable alternative to expanding the highway?   After nearly two billion dollars to widen I-25 T-Rex, in just one decade it is already approaching pre-expansion levels of congestion. Could we consider taking 2 lanes in each direction for HOT lanes that would provide an alternative to congestion and generate money to cover operating costs, accelerate debt repayment and help pay for travel options? It may be hard to picture this being approved today – but as T-Rex commuters sitting in traffic watch travelers on US 36 and other corridors get an alternative to congestion, public attitudes will change.


Instead of requiring ever increasing amounts of revenue to build underutilized infrastructure, market principles, connecting the costs and benefits of services, can help gain more use from infrastructure and benefit us all.


Bio: The two authors of this commentary – one the director of Transportation Policy at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and a liberal Democrat who spent 15 years in public office, the other a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free market think tank, have widely differing opinions on many questions.