The dark side of congestion pricing

If you follow transportation politics, you will have heard awhile ago that the Bush administration has been strongly promoting congestion pricing over the last year by disbursing funds to cities willing to expand their use of road tolling. The highest-profile initiative is New York's plan to start charging a fee for cars and trucks to enter Manhattan below Midtown, but federal money will also go to new efforts in Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Miami. (If you live in New York, by the way, right now is crunch time for the congestion pricing initiative so call your representatives in the legislature and on City Council to ask for their support.)

I admit that as I've been reading about the administration's backing for congestion pricing I never gave much thought to why a viciously reactionary regime would be pursuing policies that I strongly support. This article explains it all, and it's just as bad as we should have assumed it would be.

Basically, free market ideologues/corporate shills (they're one and the same) in the Department of Transportation have come up with a fiendishly clever plot to privatize the roads while starving transit, leading to big profits for the companies that they work for in between stints making transportation policy. Philosophically, they see roads not as a public good but as something to be rationed according to how rich you are, like any other commodity. This is why they've been promoting congestion pricing and other kinds of tolling. After establishing the principle of user fees on roads, phase two is to sell public roads to corporations, which can drive fees even higher for their own profit. The third key component is to starve public transit so people won't have any alternative but to use the privatized roads.

I should have known that the Bush administration would come up with a way to make the transportation system even worse: just as dependent on cars, but squeezing corporate profits out of everyone at the same time. The effects are already being felt - the money to fund the congestion pricing initiatives came from diverted pork barrel spending, some of which (although probably not much) financed public transit in small cities - including my hometown, which now has to rely on volunteers with cars to replace some buses. The number of major new bus and rail projects on track to get federal funding has fallen from 48 in 2001 to 17 this year. And, as Chicago residents know, the privatization of roads is a growing trend.

The best story in the article is the conflict over how a DC subway extension to Dulles airport should be done. The Department of Transportation threw a temper tantrum when Virginia decided to use a public agency to build it using toll road money instead of selling the toll road to Macquarie Holdings, a company that the general counsel at the Federal Highway Administration used to work for. The Department of Transportation killed the subway extension. Macquarie and the notorious Carlyle Group are now circling the project like vultures.

The alternative to the Bush administration's dystopian future is not, as some politicians in the article would have it, to stick with roads free and numerous. The transportation system should be a public good, it should not be commodified - but the environmental and public health costs of using it must be borne by those responsible. Congestion pricing should be a key component of shifting people away from cars and onto transit, which should also remain a public good. Ironically the Bush administration might be starting us down that path by pushing congestion pricing - but only if the next president makes a serious effort to fund the expansion of transit systems across the country.

McCain is a long-time opponent of Amtrak and has helped the Bush administration try to dismantle it, and many of McCain's advisers are free market fundamentalists like the people who run the Department of Transportation, but it's hard to predict who would actually end up making policy in a McCain administration. There is some reason to think that both Clinton and Obama would be more supportive of transit, but since they're both centrist opportunists, the political climate in the country would probably be the biggest factor in shaping their policies. Even tho transit use keeps setting records and the price of gas keeps going up, political support is still pretty anemic. It's going to depend on citizens pressuring the politicians or nothing will get done.


kyle said...

An interesting report on using congestion pricing to make public transit free in New York City came out this January. You can see it here.

Jake said...

Free transit would be amazing. You save millions of dollars by not collecting and enforcing fares, you save lots time boarding buses, all the environmental and public health damage of cars goes down, traffic jams end. Now if only the state were willing to crush the violent drivers rebellion that would result...