In a recent study of public opinion regarding congestion pricing, the Transportation Planning Board found cautious receptivity to the idea of charging Washington area drivers new fees to use the region's roads as a way to manage worsening congestion and to pay for much-needed transportation improvements.
But the more than 300 people who participated in the TPB study insisted on more and better alternatives to driving and greater accountability in how the government spends transportation dollars before they said they could support such a scheme.
The study team, which included researchers from the TPB, the Brookings Institution, and the non-profit public engagement organization AmericaSpeaks, used 4.5-hour "deliberative forums" to explore in greater depth the perspectives and opinions that underlie public attitudes toward congestion pricing. AmericaSpeaks has pioneered the use of deliberative forums as a way to bring ordinary people together to learn and talk with one another about complex problems and to explore potential solutions.
In the TPB study, participants discussed two of the most pressing transportation challenges in the Washington area: worsening roadway congestion and growing funding shortfalls.
Researchers armed participants with details about current and forecast levels of congestion in the region and why funding for transportation is so tight -- mainly that the costs of maintaining an aging system are going up while inflation is eroding the purchasing power of flat, per-gallon fuel taxes that, in many cases, haven't been raised in more than 20 years.
Participants considered three different potential congestion pricing scenarios that the researchers said could address both major challenges at the same time.
The first scenario involved charging tolls on at least one lane in each direction on all major highways in the region. The tolls would vary based on congestion levels, reaching their highest during the peak of the morning and afternoon commutes.
Already the Capital Beltway in Virginia has lanes like these, which are tolled at rates that ensure a particular free-flowing speed, offering those who use the lanes more predictable travel times.
A second scenario would charge drivers a per-mile fee for using any road or street in the region, with higher fees on more heavily traveled routes. GPS units in vehicles would tally the number of miles driven and the total fee drivers owed. In theory, this scenario would do the most to alleviate congestion by encouraging the greatest redistribution of travel to more efficient routes, modes, and times.
The final scenario would charge drivers a flat fee for entering highly-congested zones like downtown Washington or Tysons Corner in an effort to encourage travelers to carpool or take transit to reach those destinations. London and Stockholm currently have such systems.
At the end of each of the five forums that the TPB held throughout the region, participants consistently favored the first scenario -- a network of variably-priced lanes -- because it would give drivers the option to participate, rather than requiring them to do so. Participants also valued the new options for avoiding traffic back-ups that the scenario would provide. Approximately 60% of participants said they would "support" or "strongly support" the scenario.
The second scenario, the GPS-based mileage fee, received the least support from participants -- only about 10%. Participants cited major concerns about privacy and government overreach, as well as a level of complication that would add new burdens to people's daily lives and make such a system impossible to implement and enforce.
The third scenario saw more support than opposition, but many participants felt that charging fees in just a few central business districts wouldn't do enough to alleviate congestion throughout the region. They also felt that the scenario was fairer than the mileage-based fee because a number of transit alternatives and good bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure would make it easy for people to avoid paying the new charges.
Overall, participants said their chief concern with congestion pricing was that most people in the region have no choice but to drive -- whether to work or to other important destinations -- so any effort to charge drivers more to drive would only amount to unfair gouging.
They consistently said that maintaining non-tolled routes or providing high-quality transit alternatives, like an expanded Metro system or new bus-rapid transit lines, would allow those unwilling or unable to pay the new fees a way to avoid the new charge. They said that such alternatives would have to be in place before any congestion pricing scheme was implemented.
Participants also repeatedly questioned who would oversee the collection and use of any new revenues raised by the three proposals. Close to 40% of participants said they weren't confident that the government could improve the transportation system even if it had more money to do so. Participants wanted greater accountability in how transportation dollars are used before supporting any new revenue-raising measure, and more people said they would prefer to see new revenue spent on improving transit rather than building more roads.
Finally, participants doubted the ability of congestion pricing to alleviate congestion or to raise enough revenue to solve the region's biggest transportation problems. They emphasized the need for other strategies -- like teleworking, more transit, and locating housing and jobs closer to one another -- in building a better future for the region. They also became much more open to increases in federal and state gas taxes as an easier alternative to more complicated congestion pricing schemes, especially after learning that gas taxes in most places haven't been raised in more than 20 years and aren't indexed to inflation.
The findings of the study build on nearly a decade of TPB work on congestion pricing, including extensive technical analysis of a regional network of variably priced lanes and high-quality bus transit like the one presented in the first scenario of the study. The findings shed important light on the opinions and perspectives that underlie public attitudes toward congestion pricing, which should help planners and decision-makers develop proposals that the public would find useful and worthy of their support.