Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Congestion charging for novices (i.e., for Maine)

One of the recommendations of the Brookings Institution's Action Plan for Maine is to "export" our tax burden: to find ways in which we can get people "from away" to help pay for the things that make Maine worth visiting.

One way to accomplish this, and to alleviate a major hassle for summer tourists, is to implement congestion charging on the Maine Turnpike during peak summer weekends. Tolls should increase according to traffic: if traffic is light and moving smoothly, tolls should remain at 60 cents; if traffic is heavy and congested, tolls should increase to whatever price will discourage too many additional motorists from using the highway - for relatively price-inelastic weekend travellers, this price could get as high as $10, or even higher. This policy would not only alleviate traffic on the Turnpike (drivers would be more likely to ride the bus or a train, or to travel during off-peak hours); it would also generate revenue that could be used to relieve other taxes, or to bolster alternative transportation like Amtrak's Downeaster.

To be really effective, variable pricing should also apply to Maine vehicles - after all, locals have better knowledge of alternative routes, and we generally have little reason or desire to travel on the Turnpike on summer weekends. Still, to make it more politically palatable, the Turnpike Authority could allow a 50% discount for Maine vehicles when traffic drives the tolls beyond a certain point (like $2).

Unfortunately, any sort of variable pricing policy is currently illegal, since the state legislature passed a law that forbade peak-hour price increases right before the Turnpike Authority was to begin an experimental pilot project in 1995. But that was 12 years ago: we've now seen examples of how variable tolling can succeed in places like California, Houston, and (on a larger scale) London and Stockholm.

In 1995, the Legislature reacted to concerns that tourists would be "insulted" by increased weekend tolls. But what's really more insulting: a $10 toll (that's the going price for driving in and out of New York City, by the way), or a five-hour traffic jam? I'm pretty sure that most of our tourists would prefer the former.


Andrew said...

Interesting stuff...I can definitely see congestion pricing taking hold in older cities, but I think it will be a while before they catch on in Heartland cities designed for cars. Light rail is a good alternative where the streets are wide enough...
Thanks for the encouragement on my own stuff. I'm subbing at Zealand on Sunday night... Did you ever ski the slides on Whitewall in your caretaking days?

C Neal said...

I did ski Whitewall a few times, but not until springtime when the snow was deep enough and corned up - Whitewall wasn't skiable last year, and probably isn't this year so far.

One of my favorite early-winter runs was to ski down from Zeacliff on and around the Twinway - you have to ski on the trail in the spruces near the top, but then it opens up into birch glades for the last 3/4 of the way back to the hut. Have fun!