Cordon Blues: New York Is No Indicator Of Tolling’s Future

Original Article

Sure, everyone called it a congestion pricing plan. But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ambitious proposal to charge drivers $8 to enter Manhattan below 60th Street during peak hours was more about cordon pricing, literally drawing a line around downtown. Singapore, London, and Stockholm have implemented similar plans. In contrast, the typical congestion pricing project in U.S. metro regions doesn’t impose downtown cordon fees for drivers, but focuses on specific crowded highways, with variable fees keyed to traffic levels, and thus higher charges at peak hours. A related strategy involves a split between free lanes which are often more congested, and electronically-tolled High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes allowing carpools, transit and for a variable fee, solo drivers to speed past traffic.

Tolls are collected electronically by overhead gantries communicating with dashboard transponders.

The difference between cordon pricing and congestion pricing is detailed in this primer from the Federal Highway Administration.

In the Northwest online newspaper Crosscut Knute Berger today contends the New York setback could foreshadow growing opposition to expansion of congestion pricing in Puget Sound. Berger’s certainly right that any type of new traffic-pricing scheme will provoke some degree of political resistance. However, metro Puget Sound is not considering downtown cordon fees, as New York was. More at issue here is how fast and far HOT lanes and possibly, broader-brush highway tolling strategies will grow, as the region experiences a projected 52 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2040.

A related concern in Pugetopolis, admittedly also a part of the opposition to New York’s cordon pricing plan, is how soon and how well transit choices can be improved so that commuters and discretionary intra-region travellers can get around quickly without driving. The current hub-and-spoke transit system centered around downtown Seattle does little to serve growing suburb-to-suburb transit mobility needs.

So far, the biggest gripe here against congestion pricing has been that HOT lanes – coming later this month to a stretch of State Route 167 and within a year or two to the State Route 520 floating bridge and possibly the I-90 bridge as well – are really “Lexus Lanes” affordable only to the rich. In town last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters responded to the criticism. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported:

…Peters….called the “Lexus lanes” label “an urban myth that isn’t exactly true.” She said congestion-based tolls benefit lower-income drivers more than some with higher incomes. Lower-income people, she said, often must live in less-expensive housing farther from jobs and are more likely to be hourly wage-earners who will benefit more by saving commuting time.

Nice sound bite. But is it actually supported by any sort of dispassionate analysis? Um, yes, actually. From The Democratic Leadership Council, the Washington Post and the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Here’s something else that’s revealing: tolling, of which HOT lanes are one type, is growing so rapidly across the country that states in the Midwest and Eastern U.S. have adopted a common transponder and billing tool set for interstate drivers and commuters who may use more than one system on the same trip. It’s called E-ZPass. The Toldeo Blade has more.

E-ZPass itself is the trade name used by the Inter Agency Group, a multistate consortium that sets equipment standards, coordinates billing, and created the distinctive purple signs that identify electronic-toll lanes at members’ toll plazas.

Thanks to that cooperation, each toll authority’s transponders work at everybody’s tollgates, so there’s no need to obtain a different tag for each.

E-ZPass works in Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hamshire and Maine. The Cascadia Corridor will need a similar approach covering British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. Particularly with more HOT lanes coming to Puget Sound, and a new tolled bridge planned across the Columbia River on I-5 between Washington and Oregon.

As for the setback dealt to Bloomberg’s cordon pricing plan, rest assured a revised proposal will be in the offing.

Matt Rosenberg writes for the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a transportation think tank that is part of the Discovery Institute in Seattle. E-mail him at