The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

27 November 2006

Tolls for thee

Seattle has been experimenting with virtual toll roads, with the following results:

For about eight months, drivers in 275 Seattle-area households agreed to pay for something the rest of us get for free: The right to drive on the region's freeways and streets.

They were guinea pigs in a pioneering study that explored how motorists' behavior might change if they had to pay tolls — not just on a few bridges or highways, but on almost every road with a yellow center line.

Researchers established virtual tolls ranging from a nickel to 50 cents a mile. They gave participants pre-paid accounts of between $600 and $3,000, and told them they could keep whatever the tolls didn't eat up.

The experiment ended in February. Preliminary results, released this month, suggest that if such so-called "road pricing" were widespread, it could make a significant dent in traffic.

Sensibly, the "tolls" were set by time and day. On weekdays, freeway miles were 40 cents during the morning rush, 50 during the afternoon drive, but only 10 or 15 the rest of the day, and zero late at night. Weekend tolls maxed out at 20 cents.

In real life, of course, you would have a slightly different incentive: to minimize what you paid out, rather than maximize what you get to keep. Still, optimization works pretty much the same either way.

How well a real toll system of this sort would be received by the general public remains to be seen, though I suspect that it would not fare well in Oklahoma, which is awash in toll roads already. I think the most likely use we'd find for it here would be for "high-speed" (by which is meant "limited-access") lanes, separated from the rest of the freeway, which would be billed via PikePass based on the time you entered. A 3-to-1 ratio between rush hour and other periods would be reasonable, and maybe they can turn off the sensors at night.

As for the existing toll roads, I don't think they need modification at this time: they don't carry that much traffic even during rush periods. Then again, the surest way to boost traffic on the Kilpatrick would be to let traffic get worse on Memorial Road. I am told this is theoretically possible.

James Joyner sees one additional issue:

The problem with a pay-per-mile system, though, aside from issues of privacy, is that tolls have a variable impact on behavior depending on affluence. The very wealthy won't think twice about driving whenever they please; the very poor may simply not be able to afford driving at all. Intrinsically, there's no problem with that. There are all manner of things the well-off can buy that the less fortunate can not. Still, Americans have long considered the ability to use the roads a birthright. Charging for it will be seen as taking away a basic freedom. That will not go over well, regardless of whether it makes practical sense.

I suppose it would be possible to tweak the PikePass system to allow for varying rates based upon the estimated value of a car: the most immediate effect, I expect, would be that you'd make sure you showed up to pick up your new PikePass, not in your Lexus, but in your daughter's battered old Ford Tempo. Certainly the PikePass isn't going to know in which vehicle it's mounted.

Posted at 8:48 AM to Driver's Seat

Memorial Road traffic could be worse. Have you ever tried to drive in Norman on a college football game day?

Posted by: Dan B at 10:23 AM on 27 November 2006

I may be crazy, but I'm not insane. :)

Posted by: CGHill at 10:29 AM on 27 November 2006

Certainly the PikePass isn't going to know in which vehicle it's mounted.

Don't give them any ideas.

Posted by: McGehee at 2:09 PM on 27 November 2006

Did the study take into account the taxs already paid on fuel(albeit what one actually pays per mile is variable due to one's mpg)? If all roads were to be tolled, would the fuel taxes be accordingly lowered (ostensibly set to cover municipal street construction/repair and un-monitored county roads)?

Posted by: John Owen Butler at 2:12 PM on 27 November 2006

duh - taxes, not taxs

Posted by: John Owen Butler at 2:13 PM on 27 November 2006

I don't really think they've gone that deeply into the details yet: so far as I can tell, it was just a test to see if (1) it was technically feasible and (2) there might be modification of driver behavior. (I'm just cynical enough to think that #2 was more important to them than #1.)

Posted by: CGHill at 3:15 PM on 27 November 2006

I've worked on the construction of some of the automated tolling gear on the Florida Turnpike.

I did some of the wiring up of the first SunPass-only exit on the Florida turnpike. These unmanned monitoring stations are outlandishly expensive, and they are highly prone to vandalism. Drivers are simply morons too and crash into the stuff all the time. Its very hard to keep an unmanned monitoring station up.

Just the electrical bid for 4 lanes of unmanned toll station was several hundred thousand dollars.

Posted by: Purple Avenger at 12:38 AM on 28 November 2006

Of course, governments don't shy away from spending money if it means they can extend their influence further.

Posted by: CGHill at 7:25 AM on 28 November 2006