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Congestion pricing

One of the few role-of-government subjects on which Left and Right dont disagree too much is road construction: in a weird but fascinating mix of economics, politics, and engineering, governments at all levels are in the road business. The pattern was established, at the national level, by the Jefferson administration, for the Cumberland Road or National Turnpike, from guess where-- Cumberland, Md., westward to Vandalia Ill. Construction started in 1811 and ended in 1838 when further extensions were ruled out by Congress. It was state-of-the-art engineering-wise, with masonry-arch stream bridges and macadam pavement, and economics-politics-wise with user-fee funding, which is why it was called a turnpike. To gain the economic benefit of using the road, you paid a toll, and the barrier pike was turned to grant you access. (Unlike the Boston subways in the 70s, there was no extra toll for leaving, but thats another story.) Toll highways fell out of political favor in the mid-19th century as first canals and then railroads, both user-fee enterprises, took precedence on efficiency grounds, and by mid-20th century only major bridgesGolden Gate and George Washington, for exampleand a few highways New Jersey and Pennsylvania Turnpikes, for example were financially based on tolls, and all the rest were user-fee-funded only in the sense that fuel taxes went into a Highway Trust Fund for spending only (well, theyve been raided from time to time) for construction and maintenance. The Interstate Highway System, built mostly in the 60s, was mostly toll-free, but now, user-funding has new appeal, along with its new name: Congestion Pricing. Prime example: the Dulles Greenway and Toll Roads, high-speed connector between the District of Columbia and the International Airport. Users pay the toll because, in their personal calculus, time is money. Actually, for all highway users, time has always equated to money, which is why theyve been paying tolls since Cumberland Road days, or pressuring their politicians to give them free roads paid for mostly by somebody else. And actually, time equates to money for folks not in a vehicle, as the little Congestion Pricing trick used by Tennessee illustrates: you can pay $24 to register your personal vehicle in person, or you can spend an extra dollar for the privilege of sending in your registration by mail, and not standing in line at the county courthouse. The Volunteer State practice notwithstanding, Congestion Pricing is usually based on vehicular traffic and two related functions: one is the use of extra expense to discourage vehicles from using some part of a road or street system which is already over-crowded, and the other is to fund construction from user fees from which only the users benefit. It usually takes the form of a toll, from the fee charged for vehicles entering a core area of downtown London to the fee charged for use, of, say, New York Citys Holland Tunnel. Since this is an opinion piece, heres my opinion: Congestion Pricing is just as applicable in small towns like Middlebury as it is in large cities like London (5 pounds entry fee at all times) or Stockholm (2- kronor during rush hours, 10 kronor off-peak) and, in fact, Middlebury already practices a form of Congestion Pricing: you can park your vehicle near your downtown destination and feed the parking meter, or you can park more remotely for free and spend time instead of money walking. Id argue the applicability of the congestion pricing principle to two Middlebury traffic problems: one is the long-discussed in-town bridge and the other is the never-discussed subject of the merits of a Route 7 tunnel under downtown Middlebury for the convenience of the substantial fraction of that traffic whose only interest in Middlebury is how easily they can get through it and out the other side, and would pay a convenience fee for easier and faster passage. More next week.

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