Thursday, June 05, 2008

North Texas officials contemplate tolling neighborhood streets

Highland Park considers plan to make Dallas drivers pay to use stretch of Mockingbird

June 5, 2008

Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

Highland Park's solution to unclogging traffic congestion on Mockingbird Lane: Make Dallas drivers pay for it.

Since most of the 18,000 drivers on the road each day cut through the town, officials are exploring a proposal to toll the road. Most local drivers would not be charged.

A plan is far from developed, but if it comes to pass, transportation experts say the stretch of Mockingbird between Hillcrest Avenue and Dallas North Tollway could become the first tolled surface street in the country.

The concept, known as congestion pricing, was among dozens of ideas in an application last year in which Dallas Area Rapid Transit led a team of North Texas officials seeking part of a $1 billion federal grant program. It was aimed at finding innovative fixes for traffic-clogged streets in big cities.

The proposal did not win, but Highland Park town engineer Meran Dadgostar said he believes the Mockingbird idea merits consideration.

"Mockingbird was a thoroughfare that would be a good candidate," he said. "The idea is still a good one."

Mr. Dadgostar plans to brief the Town Council later this year on congestion pricing before the town will move ahead with further study. But first, officials must address a litany of questions: Is there public support? Can Highland Park legally charge tolls? How much would drivers pay, and how would revenues be used? Who would run the program?

Studying those issues was exactly what local officials had in mind when they included the proposal in the grant application, said Christopher Poe, an assistant director of the Texas Transportation Institute.

The grant would have paid for a detailed report that would have also addressed pricing policy, operations and enforcement.

"There was definitely the recognition that any potential project would have to be thoroughly vetted through the public and political process," Mr. Poe said.

History of tension

The tolling idea is not the first time talked-about changes to Mockingbird Lane have stoked tensions between Highland Park residents and the many non-resident drivers who rely on the road.

Highland Park's opposition to widening the road, some have said, was an attempt to keep out non-residents. The current project, a multimillion dollar reconstruction of the road, will leave it generally narrower.

Highland Park Mayor Bill Seay said that while he is unfamiliar with congestion pricing, he would be open to investigating it for Mockingbird. But he acknowledged potential problems.

"I'm sensitive to the fact that the town has been seen as being selfish with the use of that road," he said.

Dallas City Council member Linda Koop, a member of the Regional Transportation Council, said Mockingbird is seen as a key road in the region's fight to handle traffic, not just a residential street. Highland Park planners would have to be careful that their efforts don't lead to heavier traffic on crowded streets nearby.

Mockingbird's value has been clear since late September, as construction work has sent the 18,000-plus drivers a day looking for detours.

Initially, drivers streamed down Beverly Drive, but added stop signs and tough enforcement have spread traffic to Lovers Lane and other nearby thoroughfares. Mockingbird is expected to reopen by the end of the year.

'Neighborhood street'

Despite the traffic it carries, many Highland Park residents see Mockingbird as a residential street. In fact, resident Don Chase said, a congested Mockingbird may discourage people from driving on it.

"I love looking out on a Friday afternoon and seeing those cars stacked up in front of my house," he said. "Drivers will go for the path of least resistance. We're not using their neighborhood street, so why should they use ours?"

Mr. Chase says he doesn't think the plan is viable. But transportation experts say congestion pricing has been tested and proven elsewhere.

"This idea works, and it works anywhere there is a capacity problem and the need to smooth traffic flows," said Tyler Duvall, a top U.S. Department of Transportation official and one of the Bush administration's leading voices on congestion pricing and other new approaches.

Mr. Duvall said all the finalists for the $1 billion in grant money had plans for some form of congestion pricing or similar approaches. The Mockingbird Lane proposal was part of what made the North Texas application stand out, he said.

One of the grant recipients was San Francisco, which proposed, but later stepped back from, tolling a city street leading to the Golden Gate Bridge. While that proposal was designed to produce revenue, the Mockingbird idea would instead use fluctuating pricing to manage traffic, Mr. Duvall said.

Other tolling ideas

Other tolling ideas that were in the North Texas application will probably go forward without the grant money.

DART, for instance, plans to begin converting some of its carpool lanes to managed lanes sometime later this year. Eventually those tolls would fluctuate according to how congested their adjacent roads are.

Mr. Dadgostar, the Highland Park engineer, said he'd like to refine the Mockingbird proposal as much as possible before taking it to the council for discussion. He said the program could:

•Use cameras or other technology on each end of Mockingbird in the town.

•Charge drivers detected by each scanner within a limited amount of time – those using Mockingbird as a through route.

•Discourage drivers from using parallel residential streets through strict traffic enforcement.

Mr. Dadgostar said most traffic on Mockingbird is going through the town but that he didn't have detailed data. While many people would choose another route instead of paying a toll, roads such as Northwest Highway, which is north of the town, are better designed to handle large amounts of traffic, he said.

"This is to get drivers to change their habits," Mr. Dadgostar said. "We're telling people that there are other routes out there. You pay for things that are worth paying for.";

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News

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