Priced to move

We can't build our way out of traffic congestion -- but we can charge our way out of it

Every region in the country is grappling with traffic congestion. If only it were possible for us Twin Citizens to sit back, see what works for others and then apply it ourselves. Unfortunately, no other region has been able to crack the congestion nut either.

Some regions see a solution in Light Rail and other forms of public mass transit. But if that were the answer, then cities from Miami to Portland would have proven so long ago. Instead, their sprawl and congestion have grown at an even faster clip after their systems were implemented.

Other regions have greatly expanded highway capacity. But if there were a magic "tipping point" at which this strategy bore fruit, then Phoenix and Atlanta would have reached it long ago. For Los Angeles, the panacea has been "just a few more lanes away" for some 60 years now.

All of this foolishness gives us, the common sense folk of Minnesota, the opportunity to lead the nation by rationally applying the laws of economics to traffic congestion. Economically speaking, our current "pricing model" is inefficient and unworkable. We pay for our commutes through a convoluted mix of state and federal gas taxes, license fees and general funds. The result is that the price of commuting isn't transparent, and commuters take it for granted.

The solution we must come to -- and the one we will come to sooner or later -- is in congestion pricing that efficiently tracks commuting costs and assigns them at the time of consumption. Next year, the state will try a version with I-394 tolls for single-passernger cars that want to use the "sane" lanes.

As a concept, congestion pricing is nothing more than simple supply-and-demand. Let's say you want to get on the freeway and drive from Edina to St. Paul at posted speeds. In congestion pricing, a tolling authority would charge you the market rate for each segment of highway you take. That rate would be clearly marked the entire way and payment would be collected via tollbooths, in-dash electronic counters, etc. Your cost would be determined by how many other drivers wanted to take the same roads at the same time as you.

This might mean that in the wee small hours of the morning, your drive would only set you back a few pennies. To keep traffic flowing at posted speeds during rush hour, however, the tolling authority would raise prices until, ultimately, enough people would get "priced out" to keep traffic moving.

Is this fair? Of course it is. We accept it as fair when it costs more to fly on holidays because of demand. We accept it as fair that snowmobiles cost more in autumn than in spring (and vice-versa for motorcycles) because of demand. Indeed, paying the true cost of something at the time of purchase is as fair as it gets. And when you are really in a hurry, it will seem like the fairest thing in the world.

Besides, if the goal is to free ourselves from congestion, then we are going to have to pay for it one way or another anyhow -- be it in increased gas, licensing or General Fund taxes. Driving without congestion has a cost (though we may rather remain ignorant of it). Congestion pricing simply gives us the honest costs of commuting that our current shell game of highway financing does not.

The biggest benefit is that individuals would adapt their behavior over time. Some would choose to leave for work earlier, while others would choose to leave later. Some would participate in ride-shares while others would choose to live closer in to the city. Those who could do their driving at any time of the day would choose to do so during nonpeak times.

Also, entrepreneurs would eventually choose to compete with the tolling authority by providing private mass transit. Decades ago, numerous private transit companies plied the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul, serving the needs of rich and poor alike. Those days would return with an appropriately priced freeway network.

Nothing works better than the free market at regulating demand and assigning costs. This also applies to our daily commutes. Think about it the next time you're stuck in traffic.

Tony Harvath commutes from the Nicollet-Lake area. He's at agharvath@aol.com and letters to the editor can be sent to dbrauer@swjournal.com.