The gist:

The best-kept secret among transportation experts is the near-universal agreement that variable tolls—known as congestion pricing—offer the only real solution to gridlock.

The details:

With congestion pricing, phantom tollbooth scanners deduct tolls from prepaid smart cards posted on cars’ dashboards; the tolls would rise as rush hours approached and taper off as traffic dwindled.

Demonstrated in Ontario and southern California—and recently installed in London—such tolls could generate enough revenue annually to offset many local taxes while easing the congestion that can waste time and fuel.

But like gas taxes, tolling can be regressive, with high costs falling on some folks with limited financial means. To help make tolling fair, a congestion pricing system can use tolling revenue to fund transportation alternatives—and lower transportation costs—for those most affected by road tolls.

A Northwest reality?

Some parts of the Northwest have begun to experiment with congestion pricing. In Washington, the state route 520 bridge across Lake Washington now charges higher tolls during rush hour than at other times of day. And state route 167 now has High Occupancy Toll lanes, which vary tolling rates throughout the day based on real-time congestion data: tolls increase with heavy traffic, and decrease when traffic is light.

Read recent updates on congestion pricing on Sightline’s blog.

March 7, 2006