Baker likes managed (toll) lanes
Would likely require state to add a lane to existing highways
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER has found a form of congestion pricing he likes, but it faces a number of legal and logistical hurdles if it is to take root in Massachusetts.
Congestion pricing seeks to reduce congestion by shifting travel patterns using tolls or mileage charges. The general goal is to incentivize people to travel at less-busy, off-peak times or discourage them from entering congested areas. London, for example, charges cars entering its central business district $16 per day. New York City is planning a similar charge for drivers traveling below 60th Street in Manhattan – a move that would complement existing road and bridge toll reductions at off-peak times.
Baker, for practical and philosophical reasons, is not a big fan of these types of congestion charges. On a practical level, the congestion study released Thursday by the Department of Transportation said cities are the only ones that can impose charges on drivers seeking to enter them. In other words, that’s a call Boston Mayor Marty Walsh would have to make.
The study also said lowering off-peak fares to encourage more people to travel off-peak wouldn’t be realistic on the Massachusetts Turnpike or the Tobin bridge (about the only places where tolls are collected in Massachusetts) because either traffic isn’t that bad (on many parts of the Turnpike, speeds are pretty good) or there is no excess off-peak road capacity (southbound on the Tobin Bridge is consistently congested) to incentivize drivers to use.
Tolls on the managed lanes have to be relatively high to manage their use. The Transportation Department report suggested one-way fees of $2 to $3 per “commute segment” would be a possibility, with a minimum fee of $20 to $30 weekly.
Managed lanes are gaining adherents around the country. In Washington state, a managed toll lane on I-405 has allowed overall usage of the highway to increase 23 percent, with average speeds up in the toll lanes by 27 miles per hour and in the free lanes by 6 miles per hour. The average toll during peak periods is $3.17.
In Georgia, a series of managed lanes with an average toll of $3.44 have improved travel speeds in both the managed and free lanes. Virginia has seen similar results on I-66 between I-495 in Virginia and Washington, D.C. The Virginia experiment has attracted attention because the tolls on the managed lane are allowed to float up or down depending on demand. At times, according to the state study, one-way tolls have exceeded $40.
Managed lanes also offer equity advantages. Drivers who can’t shift their commuting times still can use the free lanes, which typically have increased speeds because of the introduction of the managed toll lanes. The managed lanes can also be opened up to buses of all sizes, giving passengers a way to get to their destination at far less cost. In Georgia, one of four people using the managed lanes are riding buses.
Baker said managed lanes would be a big departure from standard operating procedure in Massachusetts. “I believe this idea has significant merit but requires significant planning and design work, which we will pursue,” he said.
Managed lanes would face a lot of legal and logistical hurdles in Massachusetts. They would require a change in state law because tolls currently cannot be assessed in Massachusetts for any reason other than repairing and maintaining the roads on which the tolls are assessed.Under existing federal law, the number of free lanes on a highway cannot be reduced, so the managed lane would have to be either built from scratch or possibly fashioned out of the breakdown lane. That could be a big challenge — adding a lane to the Southeast Expressway or I-93 wouldn’t be cheap or easy.
The Baker administration plans to begin exploring managed lane options over the next year, but the hurdles to be overcome appear to be very high.