Monday, July 09, 2007

"Are congestion problems going to be corrected if they threaten the income of the toll road? Not in our lifetimes!"

Tollway congestion pricing idea not dead yet

July 9, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack say the county is looking for ways to relieve congestion on the Westpark Tollway. Among them:

Heated opposition may have forced Harris County to cancel a steep increase in tolls to relieve gridlock on the Westpark Tollway, but such "congestion pricing" likely will be essential as population growth and traffic outstrip capacity, officials say.

"I believe that ultimately there will be customers who contact us, asking for congestion pricing," County Commissioner Steve Radack said.

County Judge Ed Emmett said that all other forms of transportation, from passenger airlines to freight haulers, charge a premium for speed and convenience. Tolls that vary with demand follow the same principle.

Congestion pricing is not widely used in the United States and often has been derided as "Lexus lanes," where those who can afford higher tolls cruise freely past slow-moving vehicles in regular lanes.

It got an icy response in Houston last month when drivers roared disapproval at a proposed increase from $1 to $2.50 on the Westpark Tollway during three hours of the morning and the evening. The plan has been shelved — for now.

Radack, whose Precinct 3 includes the Westpark Tollway and will include future high-occupancy toll lanes on the Katy and Northwest freeways, said the increase recommended by consultant Wilbur Smith Associates was too much for too long.

A smaller increase for just an hour in each direction could have made a difference and been acceptable to users, he said.

Calls to the consulting firm for comment last week were not returned. But its report said a toll of $2.50 to $3 would be needed to lower peak-hour usage below the Westpark Tollway's capacity of about 3,600 vehicles an hour at 50 mph. It also said that if the higher tolls were in effect for just one hour, motorists might avoid them by changing their commute times, which would only move congestion time, not eliminate it.

Although congestion pricing is generally favored by economists, it's often been a hard sell with the driving public.

"Toll roads can't compete without the presence of congestion and motorist inconvenience on the public highway system," National Motorists Association president James Baxter wrote on the group's Web site recently.

The group advocates against various regulatory measures on driving and opposes congestion pricing and toll roads in general.

"Are congestion problems going to be corrected if they threaten the income of the toll road?" Baxter wrote. "Not in our lifetimes!"

Harris County officials are not against congestion pricing in principle. But Radack and Emmett agreed the issue, as far as Westpark is concerned, is dead for now.

No decision has been made on whether congestion pricing will be used on toll lanes planned for the Katy and Northwest freeways, Emmett said.

He said he does not expect the county to float the idea on the Westpark again before the Katy Freeway widening project is completed in March 2009. The freeway runs parallel to the Westpark Tollway about two miles to the north and is expected to relieve some of the Westpark pressure.

"Congestion pricing doesn't work unless there is an alternative," Emmett said. Unless drivers get some advantage by paying a toll, he said, "it becomes just a way to gouge the public."

In theory, congestion pricing can be used to maximize either traffic flow or toll revenue. In practice, however, those goals are not entirely in conflict, said Mark Burris, a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.

That's because the toll levels needed to accomplish both are about the same, he said.

One place it's been implemented is in Los Angeles at the 91 Express Lanes, a 10-mile tollway down the middle of the Riverside Freeway where the tolls increase during peak hours.

But Burris points out that the 91 Express Lanes were managed privately before being turned over to a public agency.

"A lot of people were hoping for lower tolls" after the changeover, he said. "But the toll road authority (of Orange County) decided they could not lower rates and keep the traffic moving."

Burris said congestion pricing is implemented in two ways. The simplest is to publish the tolls in advance — the 91 Express lanes publish a matrix of rates for each hour and day of the week — and revise them as needed.

The second way is to have tolls change from moment to moment, based on traffic speed or volume. Signs display the current toll shortly before the entry ramp and the car owner pays that amount, regardless of whether the rates change down the road.

The first method is "a little less difficult to manage, and it's more politically acceptable because drivers know in advance what the toll will be," Burris said.

The second method is better in cases of bad weather, accidents or breakdowns, he said, because it allows officials to respond faster to slowing traffic.

Burris said rush hour, which Houstonians know can last for several hours, follows a typical scenario that congestion pricing can help prevent: At first, everything goes smoothly. Traffic volume increases, but all the vehicles maintain highway speeds. As capacity is reached, something happens to disrupt that flow.

It can be anything from an accident to "just a few more vehicles that get on at the next entrance ramp," Burris said. Whatever the cause, "Everything slows down, and it can take hours to get back to full capacity."

This is shown dramatically along the Westpark Tollway. For instance, the average speed for westbound drivers in the evening rush plummets from the 70s to below 10 mph in less than a mile, shortly before Fondren. They stay mostly under 30 mph until motorists pass Beltway 8, then shoot upward.

Radack said such slowdownseventually will persuade drivers to accept congestion pricing.

"If you have a commute that should take 18 minutes, and it takes 48, think of the wear and tear on your car, and you may use up half a gallon of gasoline. It reaches a point where it becomes revenue-neutral," he said.

"You pay Exxon or you pay the toll."

* Talking with city of Houston officials about widening Richmond west of Wilcrest as a relief valve - a job Radack said he is willing to spend county road funds to help accomplish.

* Talking with the Metropolitan Transit Authority about running buses and vanpools on the tollway, which has three Metro Park & Ride lots and a major transit center along its route.

* Metro says it does not run buses on the tollway because the nearby Southwest Freeway is more convenient to its routes.

* Adding more eastbound exits to give drivers the opportunity to exit before reaching congestion at the Beltway.

* Radack said the Westpark Tollway was designed with no exits in an 8-mile segment from Barker-Cypress to the Sam Houston Tollway because officials did not want it used for short hops and because exit ramps are costly to build on the south side of the tollway, which abuts a Metro rail right of way.

* A crackdown by constables' deputies on EZ Tag cheating.

* Directing toll road officials to contact EZ Tag users and ask for suggestions.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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