are toll lanes “congestion pricing”?

Congestion pricing should really be called decongestion pricing.  Its purpose is to provide an alternative to sitting in congestion for people and businesses willing to pay the fair price for the scarce road space required.  The toll isn't a tax, it's a price for driving in an uncongested lane.   So if your toll lane is still congested, you're not doing (de)congestion pricing, and your results say nothing about whether it's a good idea.

In Crosscut, former Washington State Secretary of Transportation Douglas MacDonald lays out the issue today as it applies to Seattle area freeways.  There, likely toll lanes are already High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes permitting cars with two or more people.  Everyone knows that if the goal is free flow, this minimum has to go up to three whenever congestion requires it. 

When carpool lanes were first established there was a vigorous “now or later” debate about the right limit for the carpool privilege: two-to-a-car, or three-to-a-car? Pragmatism won. Except for three-to-a-car from the start on the Evergreen Point Bridge, carpool lanes were introduced with the two-to-a-car rule.

Everyone involved at the time believed that later the rule would have to be, and could be, changed to three-to-a-car. Everyone was entirely up-front about this expectation. The trigger would be the growth of traffic in the carpool lanes to the point where access would have to be cut back so that they would still work.

Didn't happen. Good luck today with that ticking time bomb for a political revolt. The moment of truth is at hand, at least for some carpool lane segments. But no one today seriously talks about outright banishing the two-to-a-car carpoolers to thin out jammed carpool lanes.

I defer to Doug's knowledge of Washington State politics, but I do resist the apathy-inducing hyperbole of the phrase "no one talks seriously."  Is "everyone" sure that changing carpool lanes to 3+ would trigger a political revolt if it also caused people to start getting to work on time?  Especially if the state also put some effort into casual carpool facilities at the same time?  Especially if transit riders (in buses in the same lanes) began getting to work on time too?  I wonder.  I can see it would be controversial.  I can see it would take some time.  But can no one "seriously" discuss it?

10 Responses to are toll lanes “congestion pricing”?

  1. EngineerScotty March 29, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    One relatively bizarre thing about the carpool lane on I-405 is that it is (or at least, was) on the right-hand side, with the requisite “breaks” needed for SOVs to exit and enter the freeway.

  2. Tom West March 29, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    If the highway has three or more lanes, maybe the correct thing to do would be increase the number of HOV lanes.
    (I know this ducks both the questions rasied in the article)

  3. Cascadian March 29, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    MacDonald’s job at WSDOT was to build highways. He doesn’t care about transit and I inherently mistrust his judgment on transportation issues.
    Moving to 3-person carpools is perfectly workable. My concern with current proposals is that they’re moving toward HOT lanes *instead* of HOV. I think the way to toll congestion is to toll all lanes except the HOV lanes, and set the HOV limit so that transit and carpools will move smoothly at all times. Or we could increase the number of HOV lanes and eschew congestion pricing at all.
    Also, EngineerScotty, the carpool lanes on 405 are in the center now, and the state has spent a lot of money building fly-out lanes for buses so they can get on and off without having to cross traffic. The 520 HOV lanes are still on the right-hand side.

  4. Rob March 29, 2011 at 10:11 pm #

    @Cascadian, what gives you the authority to feel you know what others care about and assume their hidden biases and motives, especially people you don’t know? I find that degrades online discussion. And what does it mean to “inherently mistrust” someone’s judgment? (By the way, Doug is transit dependent due to poor eyesight and has spent much of his time since leaving WSDOT working on transit issues.)
    Jarrett, here’s the challenge as I see it. Imagine that a state has a large HOV program and has spent several years building the case for HOV lanes. One of the major supporting constituencies is all the people that get to use them on weekends when they’re with their a family member. A huge group of HOV supporters then has an entitlement, and when you kick them out you move about 2/3 of a lane of traffic into adjacent lanes, which are some of the most congested places in the freeway system.
    Whether that’s good policy or not, here’s the effect: most traditional HOV supporters lose their benefits, and instantly you make traffic *really bad* in places it was bad already. People don’t like it when engineers – intentionally – make things really bad for them just to benefit a chosen few. Meanwhile, over in the HOV lane you have crickets chirping and tumbleweeds – the HOV lane you’ve just fixed has 1/4 as many cars in it and feels totally empty.
    The legislature looks at this situation and sees a big political win – there are virtually no supporters for the new condition, lots of angry people, and the overall impression that the engineers are incompetent. This is a condition begging for a political fix. Since HOV lanes set a priority of some users over others, it’s easy to make the case that HOV policies are social engineering rather than traffic engineering (despite the opposite actually being true), and they are a popular target for legislative action every session. In my opinion, a change to 3+ would create a situation that could last at best a month, and that’s why it hasn’t been done anywhere.
    There needs to be a solution that is not so abrupt. Even if the public supports transit ballots overwhelmingly, that doesn’t mean they are so excited about transit and HOV lanes that they will cheer conditions becoming worse for themselves just to see transit improved, especially if the legislature is in the decision-making role.

  5. Jarrett March 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    @Rob etc. Well, is it out of the question that the HOV minimum occupancy could be dynamically adjusted based on actual traffic volumes? Sure, it means that a 2+ carpool can’t set out knowing it’ll be able to use the lane, but if it can’t it would be in congestion either way. That would ensure a “no-tumbleweed” policy, though of course the gaps between moving cars will always look spacious if you’re in stopped traffic next to them.
    Whole point is to get the Legislature to set the management objectives of the network rather than the details.

  6. JJJJ March 29, 2011 at 11:13 pm #

    Tom is right.
    Make the leftmost lane 3+.
    Make the lane to the right of that 2+.
    Make the remaining lanes “open”

  7. Rob March 29, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    You could adopt a 3+ peak, 2+ off-policy, but that doesn’t help much – since you are still making traffic a lot worse at the times people care most (the peak) and leaving the HOV lane empty one lane over. Also, if you set operating hours it is an open invitation for legislation to adjust those hours.
    In an orderly world legislatures might stick to setting management objectives and avoid making traffic management decisions, but if the legislature doesn’t accept that limited role there’s not a lot one can do about it. And as soon as you start having engineers prioritize one set of users over another, some will feel they’ve stepped beyond the narrow decisions they’ve entrusted engineers to make. In reality one works in a political context – just as transit planners need to consider the fact that those enjoying a bad transit service will be more vocal about proposed changes than those who would benefit but don’t use it yet. You don’t let that stop you from making positive changes, but you can’t succeed if you ignore the political context you’re trying to work within.

  8. Nicholas Barnard March 30, 2011 at 12:14 am #

    Well, the big elephant in the room is Tim Eyman, who per Wikipedia is “a conservative political activist in the U.S. state of Washington. He advocates for a smaller state government, through lowering state taxes and fees. He has written 15 initiatives and one referendum.”
    The more colloquial way to put it, is he’s a conservative who throws a fit at the ballot box when things don’t go his way. In many parts of Seattle mentioning Eyman gets a disgusted eyeroll from people, including yours truly.
    Basically MacDonald is referring to the fact that Eyman would seize upon the 2+ to 3+ change to offer a referendum to do away with or in some other way tie the hands of the politicians and engineers with HOV lanes.
    There are spots where most of the infrastructure to switch between 2+ and 3+ could be extended due to the active traffic management systems we have in place, including variable speed limits.

  9. Eric Doherty March 30, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    This all sounds like a good argument in favor of shoulder bus lanes. Most shoulder bus lanes are not suitable for other vehicles, and are therefore not subject to the same conversion pressure. If transit vehicle are not stuck in traffic, then congested 2+ lanes are not such a big deal.
    But all politicians have to do to convert to 3+ lanes is to wait for an oil price spike and then declare an emergency. They might not have to wait that long.

  10. jack whisner March 30, 2011 at 6:20 pm #

    Rob is correct on many points, including his support of Doug MacDonald.
    Washington State already experienced the fall back once before. WSDOT attempted to have the I-5 northend lanes at three-plus, and the Legislature, led by then State Senator Gary Nelson, R-21, (later a county councilmember and now retired) forced WSDOT to shift it back to two-plus. The lanes immediately slowed for transit service.
    Traffic engineer Rob Spillar described this in the Spill-o-meter: at two-plus, the HOV lane is congested; at three-plus, there is the empty lane syndrome.
    The center access ramps were built by WSDOT but usually with Sound Transit funding (e.g., I-405 at NE 6th Street and NE 128th Street; I-90 at 142nd Place SE; I-5 at South 317th Street and at Lynnwood Transit Center and Ash Way). the odd outcome is that ST does not use them much and is not intending to use them intensively in the future as they are putting their ST2 funds into Link. I think we would be better off is St really made the ramps sing with frequent bus service.
    The issues with dynamic change in occupancy restrictions is information, driver confusion, and enforcement.
    Tolling all lanes on all the limited access highways of central Puget Sound, not just HOT lanes, has promise. The issue is getting there politically. It could be pitched as a utility. all users would benefit through improved speed and reliability: general purpose, freight, and transit. Tolls need not be imposed at times when the highway is not congested. It would save the capital cost needed for center access ramps and enforcement areas.
    Legislators hear both left and right wing populist arguments against tolling. both are false. the left uses the Lexus lane argument, but all income groups benefit from free flow and all suffer from congestion. the right uses the we already paid for the highway… but that is false, as the feds paid for 80 to 90 percent of the cost and the toll provides value as Walker points out. Congested highways are where tolling is most needed.