Thursday, December 4, 2014

Congestion Pricing on the Bridges Deserves more Thought; Transit may Depend on it

Lots of good talk about tolling as a result of last night's "funding workshop."

The tone spurred by the word "toll," however, might be a little high, and we might have better results if we talked about "congestion pricing" instead.

Tolls maybe sound punitive, but "congestion pricing" is a market-based solution that preserves individual choice and relies on the aggregate wisdom of the crowd in allocating road capacity.

Cherriots new service map points towards congestion pricing
The topic also illustrates why we have zoom out and not just look at "what's in it for me?" or "how are they going to stick it to me?"; we must also consider a host of land use, development, and transportation questions.

Maybe the thing that crystallizes this best is the probability that transit will not work in West Salem unless we have congestion pricing on the bridges.

Cherriots new service levels just empty out West Salem, just give up on it. The case boils down to, "Have you looked at the numbers? There's no way to justify running empty buses all around the hills of West Salem."

One of the reasons for that is the drive-alone trip is too cheap.

And if we charged more for parking and for congestion pricing, Cherriots would look a lot more cost effective.

Additionally, a household's expenses wouldn't just add up to more with car trips + new bus trips. Instead there would be fewer car trips, and more bus trips, and there would be cost shifting rather than just cost adding.

On a bridge email list one person writes:
Just purely guestimating for my family; husband, me and my [child] who works over the bridge and goes to [a job site in east Salem], our annual cost could be about $7,665. That is astronomical for something that's not even benefitting us! I would have even had to pay $3.00 just to go to the funding meeting last night!
But this calculation assumes no change in trip choices. With real bus service, the funding meeting might have been an excellent choice for a transit trip. Same with much of the fixed schedule job commuting. Additionally, walking, biking, or carpool could become more attractive. With real bus service, a household can consider eliminating an extra car - and that right there approaches $10,000.

So there are system effects that can mitigate the cost of congestion pricing and rebalance household budgeting.

Another way, though, to look at tolls is as a "user fee." And in this way, if we used tolls to finance the seismic retrofit of the Center and Marion Street Bridges, there would be a direct link between the user fees and user benefits.

There's also talk about real estate. Here's the thing. Without congestion pricing, because longer commutes from West Salem are too cheap, the pricing in the market right now subsidizes car-dependent property far out in West Salem - even in Monmouth, Independence and Dallas. There's not enough incentive for developers to concentrate along transit lines and closer in. Congestion pricing will help curb sprawl and generate more kinds of walkable development, both residential and commercial, in West Salem.

One criticism that probably holds is that downtown businesses should oppose tolling because it will make shopping from West Salem less attractive. I don't know that there's an answer to this: I think it is true to some extent.

You might recall the "retail leakage" in West Salem from the West Salem Business study earlier this year.

"Retail Leakage" in West Salem
from Market Analysis memo
West Salem needs a more robust set of retail and commercial enterprises. These will in fact mean that shoppers from West Salem do not visit downtown for some needs. But a more robust commercial center in West Salem means more short trips can be taken on foot and on bike (or by bus, when service returns), and even by car. This also means fewer trips across the bridge - which better allocates existing capacity, we should agree. And overall, it would mean fewer vehicle miles traveled, which is also a good thing.

Downtown's prosperity should not rely on subsidizing trips from West Salem. The single-most important factor to a solution in downtown will be more downtown housing.  We need people to be right there in meaningful densities. Linking downtown's health to car-dependent trips from West Salem may look good in the near-term, but it only harms downtown and Salem generally in the medium- and longer-term.

Congestion pricing for a Third Bridge is a lousy idea.

Congestion pricing to generate revenue for our existing bridges and to better allocate capacity on those same bridges is a good idea that deserves a very serious look.


Jim Scheppke said...

Two reactions to this. First, "congestion pricing' is a misnomer in this case, since there is no congestion on the Marion and Center Street bridges except for about five hours a week. But a more serious objection is that the cost of collecting tolls is exorbitant. We were told at the funding workshop that the annual cost would be $8-$10 million. So a $1 toll both ways would net $10.5 million in annual revenue according to the new funding tool. But it would cost $8-$10 million to collect. All that money would come out of our pockets. I don't know about you, but I would not feel good about paying that much to a private company to collect the toll.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

It is not yet obvious to large numbers of people that Salem's "congestion" is both limited in time and limited in actual terribleness. So since the popular sentiment is that Salem's bridges are frightfully congested, it is not wrong to call the user fee "congestion pricing." Additionally, pricing can be variable: free or nearly free at low demand times, and scaling upwards for high demand times. This will allow people to pay in time or in money - would give people more choice, not less. The effect is likely to mitigate congestion during the one or two hours a day when the bridge traffic seems noticeably slowed (though still not to the "gridlock" like it seems in the popular imagination).

Since it is the position here that autoism causes many, many civic problems, and that autoist subsidies need to end, it does not seem so great a problem that collecting low user fees has proportionately large transaction costs. Higher user fees at higher demand times would have proportionately smaller transaction costs, of course.

And of course something that looks inefficient today won't necessary still be inefficient in 5, 10, or 20 years. Technology is changing a lot right now. So a critique of congestion pricing that depends on highlighting its inefficiency today does not seem very powerful or problematic from here.

You also don't address the benefits of congestion pricing:

1) Making transit, walking, and biking more competitive.
2) Adding a small disincentive to sprawl and a corresponding incentive to more compact, walkable development. (Congestion pricing, for example, could have a beneficial effect on the North OSH redevelopment in addition to the Edgewater district.)
3) Contributing to a road-funding mechanism that has a stronger relation between use and the thing used (as opposed to the randomness of our current scheme).
4) Giving pricing signals that are consistent with carbon-reduction and climate change strategies.

All in all, just because the concept of congestion pricing in Salem on the bridges isn't perfect today, doesn't mean it might not be a very good thing, and a thing to be improved incrementally over time.

Congestion pricing is good policy; and however much it runs counter at this moment to the "will of the people," this is an instance where what is popular is not also what is good.