Congestion pricing – a tool that can solve many transportation problems

When roads are free, drivers don't use them efficiently

IN ADDITION to ranking among the worst cities for traffic, economic inequality, and housing costs, Boston holds another ignominious distinction: we’re the largest US metro area not using dynamic tolls to reduce congestion on our highways (Mass Pike tolls don’t count, since they don’t change throughout the day).

Dynamic tolling is a form of congestion pricing, and both concepts are undergi­rded by the same principle: when roads are free, people don’t use them efficiently. UCLA urban planning professor Michael Manville explains that “[w]e don’t say water is free, gas is free, and, as a result, we don’t run out of those things. But we run out of road every day, twice a day.”

Traffic experts and economists agree that congestion pricing is the only policy that permanently alleviates congestion, effectively guaranteeing a minimum traffic speed if implemented correctly.

Congestion pricing seems especially attractive when compared to traditional traffic mitigation techniques, like adding new lanes or entire highways. Bostonians, especially, should be familiar with the ineffectiveness of these strategies. The Big Dig upended the city for over a decade, cost more than $10 billion, and failed to cure our region’s congestion problems.

Because it’s cheap and relatively simple to implement, the best way to prove the value of congestion pricing is to pilot it. It could take as little as a few months to upgrade equipment for a pilot. And the data shows that congestion pricing becomes more popular after implementation, when the benefits are obvious.

Congestion pricing is not experimental; dozens of American cities use dynamic tolls today and cities like London and Singapore have used congestion pricing to great success for decades.

The idea isn’t new to Boston, either. Despite Baker administration opposition, the Chamber of Commerce and transportation advocates have long backed congestion pricing, and state legislators recently filed a bill that would create a committee to study the topic.

Congestion pricing would, of course, result in drivers paying to access roads that are currently free. But the congestion that plagues our roads means traveling them today isn’t without cost. Massachusetts drivers lose an average of $2,270 each year to congestion – more than $6 a day. Tolls might seem more tangible, but the money missing from your wallet because of congestion is just as real.

It is true that tolls can be disproportionately burdensome to low-income people. This is a concern that should be taken seriously, but, luckily, there are tools to mitigate it. We have programs that ensure low-income people can access essentials like utilities and food without making those goods free. We should think of roads in the same way. Tax credits, low-income exemptions, and other mechanisms can help to offset inequities.

And there are other reasons that congestion pricing should actually improve equity as compared to the “free roads” status quo. For one, even though we tend to think of untolled roads as free, the costs from lost productivity, worse air quality, and more accidents are disproportionately suffered by the poor.

Perhaps the most important equity benefit of congestion pricing is that it would generate funds that could be directed to public transit. Putting the MBTA back on its feet would give car commuters a compelling alternative to driving and deliver a much-needed dividend for low-income communities dependent on our teetering transit system.

Improving public transportation has huge equity benefits. It’s a powerful tool for lifting people out of poverty by making jobs, education, and healthcare more accessible. Proceeds could fund discounted T fares and free buses for low-income riders. An investment of this size in public transportation could mark an inflection point for low-income transportation access in our region.

And putting this money to work at the MBTA would have benefits across the board. A 2018 report estimated that the MBTA delivers $11 billion in benefits for the region every year – that’s more than a 5x return on money spent.

Massachusetts simply cannot afford to continue ignoring a tool that has the potential to solve so many of our problems. State legislators and Gov. Maura Healey should seize this opportunity to disrupt the status quo and secure our region’s future.

Lucas Peilert is a joint degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School who focuses on technology and policy issues related to transportation.