D.C. council considers congestion pricing study

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 5/8/2019

Among the most congested cities in the nation, Washington, D.C., lawmakers are searching for ways to clear up traffic. One solution the city is looking into: congestion tolling.

During a markup hearing on May 2, the D.C. Council’s Committee of Transportation and Environment proposed spending $475,000 on a congestion pricing study. The proposal requires the District Department of Transportation to study and make recommendations on the potential benefits of congestion pricing.

Language in the proposal instructs DDOT to analyze the following:

  • Intra-district tolls.
  • Tolls for vehicles entering the District via the District’s bridges.
  • Different pricing strategies.
  • How different pricing strategies would be compatible with the introduction of automated vehicles.
  • Demographic, geographical, residential, nonresidential and income-level equity.
  • The potential to raise revenue.
  • The potential benefits of regional collaboration.

The committee mentions autonomous vehicles among the reasons behind studying congestion pricing. Referring to the likely increase of autonomous vehicles as they become available, the committee is worried that congestion will be exacerbated in the future.

“Traffic is already a constant inconvenience for District residents, and with the arrival of autonomous vehicles in the near future, the District may face even greater traffic congestion,” Committee Chairwoman Mary M. Cheh said in a statement. “This study will provide the council with essential information on how the District could implement congestion pricing to help reduce the number of non-District drivers on our roads, including pricing strategies, and help identify any equity concerns, and, of course, any legal constraints.”

Congestion pricing essentially puts a financial burden on motorists entering the busiest parts of a city, deterring them from driving into the city while encouraging public transit, bicycles and other ways of commuting.

Currently in use in London; Stockholm; Singapore; Milan, Italy; and Gothenburg, Sweden, congestion pricing has not caught on in the United States. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed congestion pricing in 2017, which was approved earlier this year. The plan will not go into effect until 2021 at the earliest.

D.C.’s proposal comes shortly after some councilmembers introduced a resolution that opposes Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to toll three major highways that also run in the nation’s capital. However, the councilmembers are against the tactic of widening highways to relieve congestion, not necessarily the toll aspect.

“Numerous studies and decades of real-world experience across the world have shown that adding lanes to highways does little to reduce congestion,” the resolution states. “When roads are widened, more drivers are encouraged to use them, and the end result is the same traffic problem as before.”

According to traffic analytics company Inrix, Washington, D.C., is the second-most congested urban area in the United States, behind only Boston. The Kirkland, Wash.-based company calculated that motorists in the capital lose 155 hours a year, costing each driver $2,161. The last mile of intercity travel takes 5 minutes with speeds of only 11 mph. Inrix estimates that congestion is costing the city nearly $5 billion.

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