Learn from New York: congestion pricing can build transit
Written by Michael Lewis on April 9, 2019
As New York takes the nation’s first step to charge drivers to enter congested areas, other cities will examine doing the same. Congestion-weary Miami should take the lead.
Manhattan aims to reduce traffic in densest areas and peak times, lessening gridlock, speeding travel and funneling fees to subways. When the charges begin in 2021, air pollution will dip.
Those aims fit Miami’s needs too.
Manhattan has suffered in recent years with construction-choked streets, illegal parking and 80,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles. Low gas prices, a booming economy and more cars make congestion worse.
Miami fights the same issues: traffic congealed as we added condo towers. Unlike Manhattan, moreover, our population ballooned with refugees from high-tax states and around the globe, augmented by added visitors.
And while Manhattan’s congestion fees will help fix crumbling subways, Miami-Dade has targeted six Smart transit corridors with far too little money to build them. Congestion fees could help.
So Miami has need to examine congestion pricing much as on I-95 express lanes, where we price travel according to traffic flow on the rest of the expressway. Economists hail the wisdom of raising cost for scarce commodities as demand increases; this is such a situation.
The Manhattan aim is to charge $11.52 a day for cars and $25.34 for trucks below 60th Street. Everyone wants an exception, with Uber and Lyft already getting breaks. The more exceptions, the more everyone else must pay or the more cars in clogged areas. Like Miami’s transit breaks, a huge volume of special rates and exceptions could undercut the aim of funding mass transit.
Collapse of the subways was the tipping point that led New York to create a charge that 54% of residents oppose. While Miamians bitterly lament traffic and its byproducts, traffic woes might not yet be enough to make us realize that roads aren’t really free – the public builds and maintains them – and that direct user fees might be more equitable in congested areas than having each of us pay indirectly for roads and their mass transit alternatives.
We’re already familiar with scarcity fees. Besides I-95 Lexus lanes, airplane tickets cost more for peak flying times, hotel rooms cost more in busy seasons, and even some electric rates fluctuate with demand. Why not driving?
But knowledge is not willpower. We’ve yet to hear a single elected official suggest congestion zone fees to fund mass transit.
For sure there’d be a host of questions: what areas warrant demand charges (not my driving routes, for sure), is the need to curb traffic really enough to do anything about it (driving free is my God-given right), who should be exempt (I need to go there for work), who would present the legislation (find someone who’s term-limited), would residents of a congestion zone get a rate break (they do in Manhattan, and our core is already filling with car-less young people).
Then come the technicalities. Fortunately, technology makes it easy to read license tags and make digital payments. Nobody has to physically collect tolls.
While New York congestion pricing will cause study by others, it doesn’t yet exist. But congestion pricing has worked in Central London since 2003: 44% fewer cars, fewer accidents, cleaner air, and the money rolls in – $15 or so per visit. Singapore has used such a system since 1975.
Those triumphs don’t prove congestion pricing would work here. Following rules is not a Miami strong suit. Conversely, love of cars has been baked into us.
And it’s not clear what entity would take charge. For example, US 1 downtown is a federal highway administered by the state with both county and city input. So who would control congestion pricing or collect fees?
But think how congestion pricing might help at just one point: the Brickell Avenue Bridge over the Miami River.
The bridge is a bottleneck connecting (or separating) downtown and Brickell. One functional lane is never used (a different battle). And whenever the bridge opens for ships, traffic backs up throughout both downtown and Brickell.
Suppose we put congestion pricing just at the bridge, high enough so that half of all drivers who now cross during business hours would instead use I-95 or other bridges. Suddenly Brickell and downtown would become more mobile, yet drivers who still used the bridge would be contributing to build more mass transit.
Congestion pricing for Miami is just an idea. We can all tick off reasons it wouldn’t work, but what if government looked hard at what congestion pricing might do for us in the right places at the right times?
Brickell Bridge $15 weekday congestion pricing for only five cars per minute for 10 hours – a small slice of current use – would yield $11.7 million yearly. That could be bonded to borrow $200 million to build mass transit while it was reducing traffic by getting most drivers to take another route over the river or make fewer trips by bunching together multiple stops.
Piggybacking on the will of New York to charge for scarcity to fund mass transit, it’s worth a hard look here to find congestion hot spots that usage fees could cool off to add transit connectivity everywhere. Those New Yorkers just might be on to something.
Which of our many 2020 mayoral hopefuls will take the first step – or will an incumbent go first?