The golden boy of Northwest news reporters, Timothy Egan, ventures to southern California to compose an excellent overview of the US trend toward high-occupant/toll (HOT) lanes in today’s New York Times. (Money quote: The Gubernator says, "Californians can’t get from place to place on little fairy wings.") All across the United States, variable tolls-congestion pricing-are becoming the new conventional wisdom about how to do road expansions. In a few places, existing HOV lanes are up for conversion to HOT lanes.

The article shows the progress that road pricing has made in public acceptance, in part because it passes muster with both libertarians and sustainers. (Something I’ve noted here and here.)

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  • But now consider the limitations of HOT lanes as a congestion pricing strategy. They have to be done lane by lane, road segment by road segment, and against considerable opposition and expense. The Cascadia region has more than 200,000 miles of streets and highways. It’ll be decades before congestion pricing can be widespread through HOT lanes alone.

    A long shot alternative, which looks like the odds-on favorite when you look far enough into the future, is comprehensive, technology-based, road-use pricing such as that being tested experimentally by the Puget Sound Regional Council  and Oregon StateUniversity.

    The PSRC pilot project has several hundred black boxes installed in the cars of Puget Sound area volunteers. Each month, the black boxes are replenished with about $100 of credit. Over the month, a satellite monitoring system sends instructions to the box for debiting road-use fees, in real time, based on the participant’s driving: congestion and other factors on each segment of road driven. The entire road network is priced, virtually-most miles are very inexpensive; a few are very expensive. (A bonus for the volunteer participants in this pilot is that they get to keep any of the $100 credit that they don’t spend by driving.)

    Somewhat lower tech is the OSU technology. It’s a mileage meter with a small radio transponder installed in test vehicles. Sensors at gas stations read each test vehicles’ mileage at each fill up and add a per-mile charge to the gas bill-in place of fuel tax.

    The political constituency for comprehensive road pricing is smaller than that for HOT lanes, because the highway-building industry likes HOT lanes (or any other means of generating millions of dollars for new roads). But technology trends could bring comprehensive road pricing into the real world more quickly than you’d imagine.

    Consider a few things. Information technology is moving rapidly into new vehicles. Virtually all new luxury cars and half of all new GM cars now have GPS navigation systems installed in them when they roll off the assembly lines. The cost of these systems is falling (possibly in accordance with Moore’s “Law”). Car alarm companies are starting to offer satellite monitoring that’s connected to onboard navigation systems: if your car is stolen, the security company can tell you-or police-exactly where to find it. (Or, if you forget exactly where at the mall you parked, you can phone in to the security center and get directions.) With the fancier car security systems, the security center can even turn off and disable the engine if the car is stolen.

    In the last twenty years, home security systems have swept the new house market in the Northwest. Virtually all new-construction homes have remote-monitored home security systems. It seems likely to me that new cars will be next, certainly within the next 20 years if not the next five.

    Wireless connectivity through information technology is riding into the vehicle fleet on the horses of navigation and security. But once it’s there, it seems a small step to use the same technology for other purposes, such as pay-as-you-drive insurance (GM is starting to do this with its proprietary OnStar system, as we noted here) and such as road user charges.

    In the end, it becomes technically possible to charge drivers in fairly direct proportion to the social costs of their driving: The per-mile charges could replace fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees and taxes entirely (and could also replace some general levies such as local sales taxes). They could be adjusted for time of day or roadway congestion, fuel economy, emissions ratings, and even engine noise.

    Now, the convergence of all of this Buck Rogers technology is still some years in the future. But it’s probably a lot closer to us than a comprehensive system of road use charges built up one lane segment at a time.