As Traffic Worsens, Economic Reality Could Take its Toll

Published in The Seattle Times

Paul Heyne, senior lecturer in economics at the University of Washington, asks: When the population of an area grows, why is it that the roads get congested but the movie theaters don’t?

His answer: Because you have to pay to see a movie. If people could walk in free, Heyne writes, “I would predict a growing problem of theater congestion.” Traffic is congested, he says, because road use is free.

We can see where this is going: tolls. And yet, as our urban freeways plug up, what are the choices?

The first is to invest heavily in transit. But transit is less convenient that having one’s own vehicle, and will not end congestion. Indeed, its success depends on congestion; transit boosters like congestion.

The second is to “build our way out.” This is not impossible; It worked for decades. But it is expensive.

The third is to charge tolls. I know; everybody hates tolls. And yet the idea is being tried, and with some success.

In Orange County, Calif., private investors put up $130 million to build a four-lane highway in the median strip of State Route 91. Opened in 1995, the toll lanes are much like the express lanes here on I-5. While the outer, free lanes struggle along at 20 to 30 mph, the center lanes zip along at 65 mph – because the schedule of tolls is set with that in mind.

At night, tolls fall as low as 75 cents. On Fridays from 3 to 5, they reach their highest, $3.50. The toll schedule is adjusted several times a year. (Current tolls are posted at

In San Diego, public authorities have opened two 7-mile reversible carpool lanes on Interstate 15 to single-occupancy cars. They pay a toll from 50 cents to $4. Tolls change in 50-cent increments as often as six minutes, depending on the immediate traffic situation (Expected tolls are posted at www. under “FasTrak”).

In both cases, the toll is collected electronicaly, using a radio device in the car. In both cases, the driver has a choice of a free lane.

The stadard argument against tolls is that they discriminate against the poor. There are several responses. First, all money prices discriminate against the poor. Second, a parallel service is being provided for free. The poor can use that. Third, the poor pay bus fare; why not road fare? Finally, $3.50 is a small luxury, about the price of a grande latte and biscotti.

In fact, says economist Randall Pozdena of consutlant ECONorthwest, Portland, “Lower-income people use SR 91 intensively.” Time is often more critical to them; they have to get to work or pick up their kids. He says, “It’s not a ‘Lexus lane.'”

Peter Samuel, publisher of “Toll Roads” newsletter in Frederick, Md. (, says variable tolls can keep the traffic moving without wasting the lane. THe problem with HOV or carpool lanes is that they are rarely used at the optimum level. Define “carpool” as two people, and the lane may be plugged; at three, it may be half-empty.

“You get a political reaction,” Samuel says. “In New Jersey the pressure got so great they’ve abolished HOV lanes.”

Free ways, open to all, are subject to crowding. “When a good is priced at zero, people use it as if it had barely more than zero value,” writes Heyne. what the freeways need is management. That’s what the ramp signals in Seattle try to do, but do poorly.

Tolls have the potential to do it better. They also provide a way to pay for new roads that won’t be built otherwise.

That was part of the idea in 194, when our Legislature passed a law allowing privately financed toll projects. Fourteen proposals were submitted. One was a bold plan to replace the ugly but useful Alaskan Way Viaduct with a four-lane tunnel under downtown. Another proposed a parallel span to the Evergreen Point bridge. All were shouted down by a public angry at the idea of tolls. People had paid their taxes already, and they wanted their roads for free.

Legislators did a U-turn. Rhonda Brooks, who manages public-private efforts fo the Department of Transportation, says, “We discontinuted work.”

One propsoal survived: a second bridge at the Tacoma Narrows, to open in 2004. It was put to a public vote, and won. The double Narrows Bridge is to have a $3 round-trip toll, paid one direction only, the same price day and night.

It amazes Pozdena that the state would charge the same at midnight as at rush hour, when the value of using the bridge is so different. “Policymakers can’t seem to get comfortable with time-varying prices,” he says.

But at least the bridge will be built. These days, that’s something.