Tolls may be best way to deal with congestion

We can either have free roads or roads that work

WHEN BOSTONIANS GET TOGETHER and engage in small talk the topics are predictable — sports, politics and of course the weather. But recently a new topic has risen to the top of the list — traffic congestion. It’s on everyone’s minds and the frustration is palpable.

One small example tells the story for thousands of commuters — for years it has taken about 25 minutes for an acquaintance of mine to drive from his home in Newton to his work in Belmont. Now on good days it takes about 40 minutes. And of course many drivers face much longer commutes, which get worse by the week.

What about the alternative of public transit? Sadly, the MBTA is crowded and undependable. The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board has done a superb job in implementing a strategy to improve the T’s operations, but it will take many more years and the investment of many more dollars for the T to become a smoothly operating and dependable system. Meanwhile, many of the regional transit agencies across the state are struggling financially and cutting back services.

If the administration has made significant efforts to improve the T, it has done very little to address the issue of traffic congestion. A gigantic opportunity presents itself with Gov. Charlie Baker’s newly formed Commission on the Future of Transportation in the Commonwealth, which is chaired by the very capable Steve Kadish, Baker’s former chief of staff, and made up of a variety of experienced and talented individuals. However, the commission appears focused on a futuristic look at the transportation world in 2030 and 2040.

Ignoring the issue of traffic congestion as part of these scenarios would be a huge missed opportunity. Congestion will only get worse with changes in technology, society, and the market. Congestion is costly to individual drivers, exacerbates pollution and undercuts the economy, all of which are central to future transportation policy.

Of course, the Baker administration does not need to wait for a commission report to take an initial step in addressing the congestion problem.

The central issue is one of pricing. When most roads and highways are “free,” and when there is no differentiation in pricing by, for example, time of day, then we get the predictable outcome — clogged highways. We can either have free roads or roads that work but we can’t have both.

The Baker administration has won justifiable plaudits for being smarter in managing many areas of state government including the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The same can be done with smarter tolling.

It was a vastly different world in the 1950s when the Tobin Bridge and Mass Turnpike opened and drivers threw quarters into a basket or handed dollar bills to collectors. Now with electronic tolling it is possible to take a smarter and more strategic approach to tolling.

Given the seriousness of the congestion issue, why not undertake a modest pilot program on the Tobin Bridge or the Mass Turnpike to reduce tolls during off-peak hours and charge slightly higher tolls during the prime commuting hours?  Even encouraging a small fraction of drivers to alter their commuting times can have a significant impact on congestion.

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The Commonwealth is in dire need of new transportation revenues (see my CommonWealth piece of October 8, 2017), but smarter tolling is not about revenues. It’s about making the roads work better for motorists and for the Commonwealth. A pilot program could be designed so drivers would still pay the same in total, but the tolls would be adjusted for low-peak and high-peak hours. Pricing governs consumer behavior in virtually every area, so why exempt roads?

Many countries, states, and cities across the world have begun to experiment with smarter tolling. Such variable tolling will become commonplace in the years ahead and the Commonwealth should delay no longer in launching a pilot program.

Michael Widmer is former president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.