Road Pricing on Connecticut's Highways

Submitted by H. Franklin Bloomer

The following is a letter to the editor that appeared in edited form in the Connecticut Section of the New York Times on May 4, 2003. Since then a congestion charge has been introduced in Stockholm, Sweden, and introduction of one in New York City was a major recommendation in a long-range plan for the city proposed in April 2007 by Mayor Bloomberg.

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To the Editor:

Your article (''Paying the Toll May Become Part of the Ride Again,'' April 27) on the possible reinstatement of the so-called tolls on Connecticut's highways was timely, as Connecticut seeks to deal with increasing congestion on its highways. Coincidently, the previous week's New York Times Magazine featured an article entitled ''The Day the Traffic Disappeared.'' It described the successful introduction of a congestion charge in London, illustrating the effectiveness of charging for road use.

The article rightly noted that the technology of collecting a fee for highway use no longer requires tollbooths, which created delays and safety issues before they were removed. But I was disappointed that the otherwise excellent article used the obsolete term ''toll'' rather than one of the modern terms ''congestion charge'' or ''road pricing'' to describe what is currently proposed. The newer terms reflect the fact that a charge to use highways would be primarily a congestion mitigation tool, not simply a way to raise money.

The idea is simple: If a finite resource is free, human beings tend to use it all up, regardless of the consequences, but if it has a cost, they tend to use it more rationally. If the charge is varied according to the time of day (higher during peak periods), some drivers will change the time of day when they travel or combine or even eliminate some trips. Varying the charge for a service based on periods of peak or slack demand has been used successfully in a commercial context for many years by, for example, airlines and hotels.

A variable charge can be made even more effective if combined with reciprocal pricing of public transportation along the same corridor (i.e., reducing fares on public transportation at times when road pricing in increased). The effect would be to level the playing field in public transportation's competition with the automobile by requiring that users pay for using certain highways, rather than only for public transportation as at present.

True, there are obstacles to be overcome before road pricing can be instituted. While federal law presently imposes monetary disincentives to collecting a fee from users of interstate highways, laws can be changed. And to judge from the ability of police and insurance brokers to access information about registered automobiles, the difficulty of charging out-of-state drivers seems surmountable. The most formidable barrier is political.

Thus it was discouraging to see Governor Rowland's spokesman suggesting that reinstatement of ''tolls'' would disrupt traffic flow. The reason for doing so is that it would have precisely the reverse effect, as it has in London.

Road pricing has been successful not only in London but in parts of the world as widely separated as Singapore and Norway. Southwestern Connecticut seems a particularly auspicious place to put it in place, because of the presence of an underutilized rail system and Long Island Sound, both of which could provide alternative ways for goods and people to travel. Notwithstanding the view of the customer in the Fairfield coffee shop, I am convinced that most people in southwestern Connecticut would willingly pay for an effective cure to the congestion with which the region is plagued.