Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy discusses his efforts to address gang violence. Plus, D.C. Councilmember Trayon White joins us to recap the "grocery march" protesting food deserts east of the Anacostia River.
Airlines do it. Hotels do it. Now highways are doing it too: raising rates to travel during peak times. Three local highways plan to charge tolls that go up during rush hour. We examine the advent of high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and probe the theory behind charging drivers more to use congestion-free roads.
- Chris Zimmerman Member, Arlington County Board; Board Member, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority; and former Chair, Transportation Planning Board for the National Capital Region
- Randal O'Toole Senior Fellow, Cato Institute; Author, Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It (CATO)
- Jack Basso Board member, Maryland Transportation Authority
- Samuel Johnson Chief Technology Officer, San Diego Association of Governments
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Airlines do it, hotels do it, now highways are doing it, too, charging more to travel at peak times. Toll roads have been around for a long time, but a new breed of variable toll lanes is designed not to just make money but to ease gridlock by raising the toll whenever the highway gets too crowded. Economists call it congestion pricing, setting tolls to discourage some users and make conditions better for those who choose to pay. But critics say it discriminates against low-income drivers in a realm where, unlike airlines or hotels, there aren't a lot of options.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWashington area residents can make their own judgment when three new variable toll roadways open here in the next couple years. Their promise? That free market pricing will keep traffic moving at the speed limit even during rush hour. Joining us to have this conversation in studio is Chris Zimmerman, vice chairman of the Arlington County Board. Chris, good to see you again.
MR. CHRIS ZIMMERMANThanks. Good to see you.
NNAMDIJoining us by telephone from Atlanta, Ga. is Jack Basso. He's a member of the Maryland Transportation Authority, director of Program Finance and Management with the American Association of Highway Transportation -- of State Highway Transportation Officials, AASHTO. He joins us by phone from Atlanta, Ga. Jack Basso, thank you for joining us.
MR. JACK BASSOThank you for having me. And Chris, good afternoon to you as well.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by telephone from Camp Sherman, Ore. is Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute. Randal, thank you for joining us.
MR. RANDAL O'TOOLEThank you. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIRandal, the idea of toll roads is not new, but setting tolls that change as traffic increases or decreases is relatively new. Explain the theory of congestion pricing as it applies to highways, please.
O'TOOLEWell, the interesting thing about highways as distinct from airlines or hotels is that when...
O'TOOLE...the capacity to move traffic significantly declines. A typical freeway lane can move about 2,000 cars an hour at freeway speeds. But when they get congested, they might be able move only a thousand cars an hour. By using congestion pricing, you can restore the capacity, the 2,000 cars an hour, and thereby actually move more cars at -- during rush hour when you have a variable toll than when you don't have a variable toll. So it seems ironic, but charging a fee actually allows more people to travel when they want to travel. And that's a good thing for everybody.
NNAMDIWell, we've got to do some terminology explanations here, Chris Zimmerman. Can you explain what the difference, for our listeners, between an HOV lane and an H-O-T or HOT lane?
ZIMMERMANWell, HOV, of course, high-occupancy vehicle lane, we've been using in this region for about four decades. It basically says that the use is restricted to those that have a certain number of people in the vehicle. Now, in the original Shirley highways facility that was started in 1969, that meant busses. Then it later was the decrease the number of people you need to have so that you could have, for instance, vanpools and then HOV cars. Meaning, if you had four people in the car, carpool could use it, and then that was lowered to three. And, you know, we have the I-66 facility which allows to, basically, as you get to use at being a carpool.
ZIMMERMANH-O-T, HOT lane, high-occupancy toll lane is the idea that, well, why don't we say that the carpools can use it for free still or the buses, but we'll let some people onto it and single-occupancy vehicles if they pay. And that was in particular, I think, originally developed because of places in the country where they had an HOV facility that was not being fully used. They put an HOV and they said, well, we have all this extra capacity. There's not that many people using it anyway, so why don't we sell some of the excess capacity?
NNAMDIAnd a variably priced toll lane. What is that?
ZIMMERMANWell, the idea of variable pricing really gets to the point that Mr. O'Toole is talking about, which is, you know, you -- when you do things like use telephone, you might have a, you know, a higher price time because, you know, the big times, you pay more. But basically, using pricing to try and manage the flow so that at the time when demand is greatest and you have the most congestion, the price will be higher. So those who can shift off at will, because they'll save the money by ding it. And only people who really need to will be on it that time. And the idea is that that would reduce -- result in a smoother, you know, less peaking, basically, less congestion at key times and a kind of smoothing out of the usage of the road. That's the theory.
NNAMDIRandal O'Toole, anything you'd like add to that about how variably-priced toll lanes maximize highway capacity?
O'TOOLEWell, the interesting thing about having a separate high occupancy toll lane is that it does give people a choice, so it gets around that argument that you're taking away people's choices. It gives you a choice of going on a free lane that will be congested, might be congested or going on a toll lane that guarantees no congestion. And the lanes that have done this, in many cases, they offer money-back guarantee. If that lane is congested, then you will get your money back and you won't have to pay a toll.
NNAMDIIf you like to join this conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. That's 800-4338850. What do you think about variable toll lanes? Would you pay more to drive on a congestion-free highway during rush hour? 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Jack Basso, the Inter-County Connector or ICC running east-west from Gaithersburg to Laurel will be a variable toll roadway. What will that mean for drivers?
BASSOWell, Kojo, it would mean, for example, as it opens up in the first stretch of its expected to open at, basically, in 2011, early 2011, late 2010, which will take it the first five and a half miles or so, could reduce commuting time over there by as much as 20 minutes to get, for example, from Shady Grove Road in Rockville, Montgomery County, to Georgia Avenue. And as it opens up all the way to Interstate 95, probably a year later, it will again make a substantial difference in the trip to Interstate 95 to BWI Marshall Airport to making your commute daily. And we're quite excited about having this facility, which is, as anyone who knows that area, it's very difficult to make the rounds from, for example, Rockville via I-95 without encountering major congestion on the Capital Beltway.
NNAMDIThese peak costs, it's my understanding, to most users will be $1.45, off-peak, $1.15, overnight, between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., 60 cents. These toll lanes, however, Jack, rely on technology both to monitor traffic flow and to collect the tolls. Explain this new system of toll roads with no toll booths.
BASSOYes. This system utilizes electronic tolling, meaning that you have no toll booths on this road. You have, basically, electronics that pick up the drivers, and we are certainly encouraging drivers to have a transponder, or as most people know as an E-ZPass, which will allow them to be billed for their use of the roadway. In the event that a driver doesn't have such a pass, cameras will pick up their information as they come on the road, and ultimately, they'll receive a bill. Now, the downside...
NNAMDIYeah, we've grown to love those cameras but go ahead, please.
BASSOThe downside of that, though, is there would be an administrative charge, ultimately, for billing that way. The idea is to encourage people to use the electronic capabilities, and frankly, that's key to really moving smoothly and quickly on these roads. It's not having the congestion.
NNAMDIIf I don't what to pay the toll on the ICC, what are my options?
BASSOWell, your options are, basically, to take the existing routes that are now -- and I'll give you an example. I do this regularly when I have to go Baltimore. I live in Rockville, Md. It means that I have to go down Interstate 270. I have to circle to the Capital Beltway, get to I-95 on the Beltway, take I-95 and head to Baltimore. And I do that a couple of times a month for things that I do with the Transportation Authority. This will save me just -- two examples, I think for that trip this is going to knock a good 20, 25 minutes off that trip for me to get to 95. And on top of that, I go to BWI Airport because I travel a lot, and it will also enhance that trip considerably.
NNAMDIChris Zimmerman, five states now have HOT lanes, and they're coming to Northern Virginia on the Capital Beltway and along Shirley Highway on the Interstate 95 and 395 Corridor. What's the status of those two projects?
ZIMMERMANWell, the Beltway project is under construction now. And I forget the exact time it's to be completed, but, you know, it's a multiyear construction project, but it will be going to effect in a few years. It's different than the other one you mentioned in that it involves construction of entirely new highway capacity. They're actually adding to the Beltway, and the part they're adding will become the toll facility.
ZIMMERMANThe other project, which connects with it, is the 395/I-95, Shirley Highway project, which involves essentially for the first 20-some miles taking an existing facility, the HOV facility, that was originally built for the Shirley Highway bus way in 1969 by taxpayers, at taxpayers' expense, and turning it over to the same company that's doing the Beltway project, who would then operate it as a toll lane facility.
ZIMMERMANNow, that project got stalled about August 2009 -- a little over a year ago now -- first and foremost, because the market took a beating. And, you know, like all big capital projects, financing became difficult, and the toll lane company -- this is an Australian company that's doing the -- that would do the two, that's doing the Beltway project, is to be contractor on this one. You know, they ran into difficulties with money, and so it was suspended.
ZIMMERMANAlso after that, the county that I represent filed a lawsuit that has to do with a number of the ways in which it is to be implemented and the granting of what's called the categorical exclusion, basically a free pass on the kinds of analysis that needs to be done to make sure it's going to be implemented correctly.
NNAMDIAnd we'll be getting any more details of that...
ZIMMERMANAnd that's -- but without getting into that...
ZIMMERMAN...the basic problem with the project and many of these are they take a lot of money. They turned out not to be self-financing, and the public has to put significant funds into it, which is true in the Beltway case as well. And so the real question is whether there is even financing to do these. When we looked at a network for the whole region on a taskforce that the Transportation Planning Board, which I chaired, one of the things that they found was it was, basically, a $51 billion price tag to implement it all across the region, and so, you know, it's not a small matter to do.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones and more details about the Arlington County objection to it later. Here is Leslie in Silver Spring, Md. Leslie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LESLIEYeah. Hi. I'm sorry I'm talking because I'm on my lunch hour right now, but I live in Silver Spring and I live in Chicago, Ill. And my experience with the toll roads have been absolutely hideous. I believe that Chicago has some of the worst highways in the country in terms of the condition, and they spend millions of dollars per mile on those highways. There's a lot of waste that goes into the toll roads, and the way it works in Illinois is there's a minimum amount that you can put on an I-PASS, so that if you don't have an I-PASS, then you're charged double the tolls. And if you have an I-PASS, the minimum you can put on it is $40. So in essence, somebody who is not well-off and can't put aside that $40 is being actually penalized, really, for being poor or not having that kind of money and...
NNAMDIThat's a criticism, Leslie, that we have heard before. Allow me to have Randal O'Toole respond to it.
O'TOOLEWell, of course Chicago's toll roads are not congestion priced. They have the same price all day, and the kind of penalty that she is talking about is not necessarily a function of having a toll road. For example in Florida, there are toll roads that you use a transponder, and if you don't have a transponder, they'll charge you a 25 cent administrative fee to pay your toll, and 25 cents really isn’t that much of a burden to bear if you don't want to have a transponder. In other toll roads, they charge a much higher administrative fee. So really, it's a matter of keeping those administrative fees low so that people can have options.
O'TOOLETransponders are really cheap as well. You can get transponders for as little as $10 now, so the idea that you have to spend $40 again is limited to Chicago.
NNAMDIJack Basso in Maryland, the ICC will have a $3 administrative fee. Leslie's argument is that poor people just can't afford that.
BASSOYes. Let me comment on that. The transponder system we'll be using out there, we're using on the current toll roads. It actually has the option to have the credit card on it. And establishing the account starts at $25, and then when it falls to a relatively low threshold, it's automatically replenished. I have one of these myself that I use. And sure, there is that argument, and I understand it, but you know, there's been quite a bit of a study by the Federal Highway Administration on congestion priced pilot roads particularly in the Seattle area -- and Randal, maybe you're familiar with this, I certainly am -- and the interesting apart of that was the arguments that I've heard over the years is that we're creating "Lexus Lanes," meaning only the rich can afford whereas the data on those and also the HOT lanes, H-O-T lanes in the San Diego area. The users and the data on users suggest it's a very wide range of socioeconomic classes that use those things for a variety of different reasons. I'll give you one example. Some of the research showed that, people for example, having to make the daycare times and who will be charged, you know, a rather exorbitant fee for being late…
NNAMDICan't be late for pick up.
BASSOYeah and two, use those kinds of facilities to make sure that A, they aren't charged that and B, it's certainly a better alternative (unintelligible).
NNAMDIBecause the daycare late fee is more than the charge on the variably priced tolling.
BASSOYeah. I would certainly…
BASSOFrom the data that I saw, yes. The answer is yes.
NNAMDIHere's Chris Zimmerman.
ZIMMERMANWell, let me just say, you know, as a public official, thinking about these things, I think that Jack makes an important point but I'm not sure it's, you know, that I get the same result from it. I think he is absolutely right that, you know, in fact, lower income people will use these things and will pay for it. It's not that they won't, it's that it takes a much bigger bite out of their income than it does for, you know, people who can on a Lexus. And so part of the concern people have is that you're setting up a situation in which people who have a lower income are forced to live farther away, you know, because of our housing policies largely, especially in a region like ours. And so then, they pick up all kinds of transportation costs. And something like this, many people see as adding to that transportation cost which means it's crowding out something in their budget. They have to pay for housing. They have to pay for transportation to get to their jobs and all these kinds of things, and it's what's left over that pays for things like food and clothing and medicine for their kids. So I think there is a social equity issue that has to be considered carefully.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on economic solutions for traffic congestion, HOT lanes, HOV lanes, variable toll lanes and your calls. 800-433-8850. If the lines are busy, go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. What do you think about variable toll range? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing economic solutions for traffic congestion with Chris Zimmerman, vice chairman of the Arlington County Board. He joins us in studio. Randal O'Toole joins us by telephone from Camp Sherman, Oregon. He is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute. And Jack Basso, who joins us by telephone from Atlanta, is a board member of the Maryland Transportation Authority, director of program finance and management with the American Association of State Highway Transportation officials. Another criticism of HOT lanes, Chris Zimmerman, is that they focus resources on people driving alone in their cars rather than on boosting public transit. Talk about the economics of driving versus public transportation.
ZIMMERMANYeah, that is, I think, one of the key issues here. When we looked at this at TPB and, you know, spent a number of years running different kinds of models and trying to do it in a comprehensive way and saying, what are the benefits if you -- if you can take virtually the whole system, at least the whole system of the inter states and price it, what would be the result? And, you know, one of the interesting results is that congestion could get a little better. But what we found is that vehicle miles traveled, the amount of actual driving going on in the region, went up and air pollution went up. And, you know, that stands in contrast to measures that would provide more options for people in public transportation such as the regional bus priority network that, you know, TPB in fact has put forward and recently won a federal grant to begin implementing where you can much more efficiently use the infrastructure we already have. And that's the key lesson of these. I mean, the HOV facilities we have. In particular, if you look at the Shirley Highway facility, it's tremendously efficient compared to just about any other roadway around.
ZIMMERMANYou know, if the average lane in the regular road is moving about 1,500 people an hour, the HOV facility is moving around 5,000. And so, you know, if you upset the balance of that, you got a real problem. But that also shows, you know, the difference in return, and I think that's what we find. As, you know, there's some potential benefits from pricing lanes at least in terms of congestion. But since you're not gonna price everything, you have all kinds of secondary effects. On the other hand, you know, is what we really wanna be doing in the future of promoting more individual driving is that, you know, isn’t that kinda what's gotten us the problem we have. We have a set of interstates that are interstate highways, but they're also regional commuter routes, and they're also local main streets, and that's the biggest problem. We over burden certain parts of the system -- we haven't created the other network and we haven't used -- used land used in a way that can make it more economical.
NNAMDIAnd Jack Basso, you've got to leave shortly, so I'd like you to respond to this. But hold your response for one second because allow me to add Michael in Washington, D.C.'s call. Michael, you’re on the air. Go ahead please.
MICHAELHi, good morning. Thanks, Kojo, and great show. I just wanted to say that I think this is just more of the same, the same attitude we've had for the last 50 years in this country, and people should compromise by living closer to where they work and then using public transportation, even walk, be more active.
NNAMDIJack Basso, do you heard that? Catering to people who want to drive by themselves in their cars at a time when we should be looking at alternatives, especially public transportation.
BASSOOkay, let me respond first of all in my role at AASHTO. AASHTO was a strong supporter of increasing the investment for public transportation, in fact our policy is looking in the current legislation that's pending before Congress to double to close to $100 billion the investment for public transportations. So that's a given, we need that. We need everything. Now, with regard to congestion -- now Chris makes some excellent points and I don’t disagree with them but here is what I would comment on with regard to that. One of the things that's clear is that we need to have alternatives and relievers for congestion. HOT lanes, priced lanes can do two things. It can be part of a solution coupled with transit -- with major transit improvements that will relieve traffic. It has – secondarily, if you can relieve the congestion to some degree in this country, and these are certainly not gonna (laugh) solve the whole problem at all in urban areas, I'd be the first to acknowledge that.
BASSOBut they are part of the solution. They do reduce, if you will, ultimately green gas house emissions because you're moving vehicles through more quickly. The interstate -- inter-county connector is tailored to affect that congestion reduction and those environmental issues as well as speed and efficiency. So I think what we're gonna need is a robust transit program throughout the country, not only in the urban areas but rural areas, and coupled with that options for drivers. And frankly, the only way we can afford to build for sonnies like that is to finance them with, if you will, tolls or methods that will allow those sonnies to be paid for because if you look at the overall investment today -- particularly in the highways, we're investing at all levels of government about 40 percent of what two major international commissions have said need to be the investment.
NNAMDIJack Basso, thank you very much for joining us.
BASSOKojo, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIJack Basso is a board member of the Maryland Transportation Association and director of program finance in management that what you heard him describe as AASHTO, that's the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials. Randal O'Toole, you haven’t had the opportunity to weigh in on this, that allowing people to drive by themselves in variably priced toll lanes really distracts from what our focus should be and that is getting people out of their cars and onto public transportation.
O'TOOLEWell, ever since we had serious air pollution problems in the 1960s, we had two ways of dealing with those problems. One was to try to get people out of their cars and onto mass transit. And we've spent close -- more than half a trillion dollars on mass transit, subsidizing mass transit since that time. And since that time, the percentage of people driving or taking transit to work or anywhere else has significantly declined. In fact, the subsidies to transit have increased by 250 percent after adjusting for inflation, and your transit ridership has only increased by 10 or 20 percent. And so, it’s not clear -- it is clear that spending more money on transit isn't the solution.
O'TOOLEThe other thing we tried to do is to make cars less polluting, and that's been tremendously successful. So if we're concerned about pollution, if we're concerned about congestion, if we’re concerned about any kind of problems with the automobile, the solution is to make automobiles cleaner, safer and highways less congested, not to try to get people out of their cars. It hasn’t worked, and it won’t work.
NNAMDILet's continue this conversation with Yetta (sp?) in Fairfax, Va. Yetta, your turn.
YETTAYeah, hi. I'm gonna respectfully disagree with the previous statement. If you look at how mass transit is arranged in this area, there is a severe lack of parking available. Many more people would ride if they could be assured that they would get parking. You cannot say that people aren’t riding if you cannot provide the parking for them. So what we're facing is a lack of suburban and urban planning that gives us an infrastructure that is actually supportive of mass transit. And when I say that I mean, you know, regularly running buses that get you to Metro, sufficient parking available. And then, you know, let's stop all this sprawl, I mean, we've got people that are commuting into D.C. from as far away as Fredericksburg and Frederick, Md. and it's just not a sustainable way of living, and we're gonna have to reduce that in the future or we're going to, you know, really run out of options all of a sudden.
NNAMDIHere's Chris Zimmerman.
ZIMMERMANYou know I think the caller is right on target. The problem with Mr. O'Toole's statement is that it sounds like one of those things from years ago where, you know, the usual response to advocates of public transportation was well, you can't make people do it, and they just don't wanna do it, and people love their cars and (makes noise). The reality, unfortunately, that we've demonstrated in the Washington Metro in area perhaps better than any other place in the country, is that if you give people good public transportation, they will take it. They want it. They demand it. In fact, we found even when the public transportation is not working as good as it should in many cases they're still, you know, crowding onto to it as much as they can. We have buses that are running from places like Loudoun County. If they had more buses, they'd have them full too.
ZIMMERMANYou know, even though those buses are caught in traffic and it's a very long ride, lots of people are choosing to pay a pretty high dollar to sit on the bus rather than be stuck behind the wheel of the car, behind the bumper of the car in front them. We've demonstrated it all over this region with tremendous growth in ridership and, you know, steady ridership obviously, in rush hour times. But even on a seven-day-a-week basis, the extent that the transit is available, people are using it. The problem we have is we don't make it more accessible to them. We don't make it easier to get -- for them to get to and from transit. We don't locate enough things near transit. The places where we have done that show incredibly high rates of usage of transit, which includes, for instance, large parts of my county but other places in the region as well. Transit is something that we have tried and it's worked. We just need to try more of it, and it will work for us in more places.
NNAMDIHere is Hunt in Chicago, Il. Hunt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Hunt. Are you there? Hunt seems to have wandered away from the telephone. I'll put Hunt on hold until we can get back to Hunt. This e-mail we got from Ed in Columbia, Md. "Randal O'Toole, I get the argument about reducing congestion by pricing some folks out of the market, but the question is, who is getting priced out? Is it the people who don't need to use the road, or will it be the people who can't afford the high tolls? For whom are we preserving the traffic flow? Does the ICC exist to serve wealthy suburban land owners and developers?" Jack Basso is no longer on the telephone line, so it's up to you, Randal O'Toole.
O'TOOLEWell, the interesting thing is, is that the whole point of congestion pricing is to increase the capacity of the roads. A typical freeway lane can move 2,000 cars an hour at speed, but at -- in congestion, that might fall to as low as a thousand cars an hour. So with congestion pricing, you're not pricing people out of the market, you're increasing capacities of the roads. And the way it works is – although a lane might be able to handle 2,000 cars an hour and maybe for a few minutes during rush hour, the demand increases to 2,200 cars an hour. And so by encouraging those 200 extra cars to travel at a slightly different time, 15 minutes after, or a half hour later, or a half hour before, you are increasing the capacity of the highway during the entire rush hour. Now, who ends up having to change? Well, it turns out more than two-thirds of the cars on the road at rush hour are not work-related traffic. They're not commuters. They're other people. They're delivery trucks. They're people going shopping and things like that. So those are the people who decide, oh, I can save a little money by leaving a half hour later or a half hour earlier, and it doesn't hurt them that much.
NNAMDIHere is Frank in Indian Head, Va. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANKGood afternoon. The idea that the congestion pricing and or high occupancy tolls is anything except a way to price poor people out of the market. It's just simply -- they should be called MLER, Make Life Easier for the Rich lanes. That's all there is to it. You're just trying to make things easier. O'Toole just said he wants to increase the capacity of the lane when all you're...
NNAMDINo, Frank, how -- Frank...
FRANK...when all you're doing is reducing the amount of people who can afford to go on the lane. So the argument is just nonsense. Thank you very much. Bye, bye.
NNAMDIWell. Frank, before you go -- Frank, don't go.
NNAMDIWhat about the...
FRANKI'm here. (laugh)
NNAMDIWhat about the argument that it enhances, improves the flow of traffic? How do you feel about that argument?
FRANKAll you're doing to improve the flow of traffic is taking some cars out of the mix, and those are the people who can't afford to pay the toll.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to that, Randal...
FRANKAgain, you're discriminating against poor people and making life easier for the rich by getting the poor people out of their way.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to that, Randal O'Toole?
O'TOOLEIt's not a matter of getting poor people out of the way, it's getting people who choose not to go at that time of day they have to pay that price, and those aren't necessarily gonna be poor people. Life is all about choices. You know, we have a choice of living in a mansion or an apartment. We have a choice of buying a Lexus or a Toyota. We have a choice of buying filet mignon or hamburger. And not everybody buys filet mignon every day, and not everybody buys hamburger every day. With the idea that roads should somehow be exempt from those kinds of choices, that there is some reason why everybody should have to sit in traffic and be stuck in traffic rather than have a choice of going in free-flowing traffic is absurd.
O'TOOLEWhy should roads require people to be stuck in traffic, when we can give people this option?
NNAMDIIs there, Chris Zimmerman, a reason why roads should be exempt from those kinds of choices based on price?
ZIMMERMANLook, as you may know, Kojo, and I might as well confess to the world, in addition to being a politician, I am also trained as an economist, so now you know. And whatever credibility is left now, you know, let me say, as, you know, as someone trained in economics, I understand the kind of argument that Mr. O'Toole makes, and it has much validity. And there is a part of me, the part, I guess, that was schooled, you know, in graduate school that, you know, agrees with that general statement as a kind of a theoretical matter. The problem is when you actually go to implement it, there are a number of things that you have to consider. One is that, you know, the one people have just been talking about, not everybody gets to choose to buy hamburger at all. And so there definitely are income effects in a society in which everybody doesn't start with the same income. They don't have the same choices. That's one part of it.
ZIMMERMANThere's other parts of it that we haven't addressed at all. For instance, you know, even though you can say, theoretically, shouldn't roads be subject to pricing? Yeah. Theoretically, if they all were, then, you know, we'd have a very different situation and you might be able to solve all the congestion problems. The reality is we're not talking about that. We're talking about charging for certain roads. And even in the modeling we did at TPB, which tried to look at the whole, you know, the whole network of major highways in the region, you're still excluding all the local streets. So one of the things you have to consider is if I create a HOT lane facility, yes, it may improve the flow on that particular road. What are the impacts all around it?
ZIMMERMANWe put in these new interchanges at $130 million a piece so that this facility can work. What's the impact on the surrounding area? If you wind up simply shifting traffic because one of the choices people will make is instead of taking the toll road, I'm gonna go to highway B over here on the right or highway C on the left, you know, and maybe go through other local streets. And those are things that you have to take into account and, you know, it's not a simple answer that is necessarily gonna make life better, congestion lower or reduce pollution.
NNAMDIIf you've already called, stay on the line. We still have lines open at 800-433-8850 for this conversation on economic solutions for traffic congestion. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Do you think tolls that change depending on the traffic volume are a good idea? Do you think they work to even encourage or discourage people from using the roadways? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing HOV lanes, HOT lanes and variably priced toll lanes with Chris Zimmerman, vice chairman of the Arlington County Board, Randal O'Toole, senior fellow at the Cato Institute. And joining us now by telephone is Samuel Johnson, chief technology officer with the San Diego Association of Governments. Sam Johnson, thank you for joining us.
MR. SAMUEL JOHNSONAlright. Thank you. Good morning.
JOHNSONOr good afternoon there.
NNAMDIIt's good afternoon here, but good morning in San Diego. Your agency runs the nation's first HOT lanes along Interstate 15 in San Diego. You opened at eight miles in 1997, added another eight in 2008, working on a four-mile extension that will open next year. How are the HOT lanes working in San Diego?
JOHNSONThey are working great. We are very proud of what we've been able to accomplish here in San Diego, and the improvements and increased value we have been able to deliver to the public.
NNAMDIYou adjust the toll every minutes is my understanding and keep traffic moving at 65 miles per hour during rush hour. What's the volume of cars in those toll lanes?
JOHNSONWe get about 40,000 vehicles a day through our facility.
NNAMDI40,000 daily trips. How many of those are HOV carpoolers and the others, paying customers?
JOHNSONI think that's really the true success story to our facility. About 80 percent of our traffic in the lanes is really carpoolers.
NNAMDIAnd about 20 percent are individual paying customers. We have had -- been having a conversation here in which people alleged that these HOT lanes discriminate against poor people who are simply priced out of the HOT lanes. What's been your experience there?
JOHNSONWe haven't seen that. I mean, I think the way we've structured our program, there's something in it for everyone. We've been able to accomplish great benefits and enhancements for transit service, so folks who wanna use transit can take transits and get very competitive travel times. Folks who wanna carpool, it definitely helps our carpool program grow. And then folks who wanna ride alone still have that choice.
NNAMDIHave there been any studies conducted to indicate whether people of all income levels are using these tolls equally or not?
JOHNSONNow, in terms of paying customers, you know, to be honest, our paying customers, folks who choose to pay the toll, that income range is a little higher than, you know, than folks who carpool or who use the general purpose lanes. But support for the program has been very high among all income groups and all ethnic groups. We've conducted various surveys. I think our most recent survey was in 2002 where we did a huge public outreach effort. And overall, across the board, by transit riders, carpoolers and folks who don't use the facility at all, we had about a 70 percent support ratio.
NNAMDIHere is Gwen -- Sam, I interrupted you. Go ahead, please.
JOHNSONNow, I was gonna say, probably more telling than our outreach effort was, in 2005, we went back out to the voters with a sales tax initiative to extend what we call TransNet, and that's our local sales tax for transportation. In that voter initiative, we had three key projects. One was to extend the I-15. You mentioned earlier how we're extending the -- we extended the facility, eight miles, a little while ago, and we are still working on the last four miles. We had money in there for that. And then we had plans to duplicate the exact same thing we did on I-15 on our two other major corridors in the county, Interstate 805 and Interstate 5. Altogether, those three projects totaled about $7 and a half billion, and the voters approved it. Now, it was a close margin. But in San Diego, we have to get two-thirds vote -- well, in California. So we had to get 66 percent plus one approval from the voters to continue it, and we accomplished that. So I think it speaks to the success of the current program and what our public thinks about, you know, the I-15 managed lane concept.
NNAMDIOn a technicality of sorts, here is Gwen in Beltsville, Md. Gwen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GWENYes. Thank you for taking my call. I have two comments -- two questions and actually a comment about California. One was, what is the maximum and minimum fee going to be on the Inter-County Connector? And what if I get on when the traffic is light, and then there's a car accident, and will I be penalized for somebody else's mistake?
NNAMDIWell, the maximum and minimum fees on the ICC are $1.45 during peak times and 60 cents during the overnight hours between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. Sam Johnson, how does it work in San Diego in the event of an accident on the highway?
JOHNSONWell, you know, we've been fortunate we don't -- we have very few, if any, accident in our facility. Our minimum toll is 50 cents, but our maximum can go as high as $8 during peak. We normally don't get that high, but that is the threshold we've established.
NNAMDIAnd, Gwen, what was your other question?
GWENMy comment on driving in California, because I lived there for several years, was the highways there actually have red and green lights on the on ranch. And so they feed one car at a time on to the highway, which...
NNAMDIWe have that here in Northern Virginia, too. I experience that getting on and off 66 all the time.
GWENAnd it just makes it go much easier. So that's something that's worth thinking about in this area as well.
NNAMDIBut, Sam Johnson -- and Gwen, thank you very much for your call -- how do people know, since the -- since you adjust the toll every three minutes, how do people know what the toll is when they get on the road?
JOHNSONWe have signage at each of our entries to the facility. So we make sure that a traveler is informed. When they make the choice, they know, hey, this is how much I'm going to pay. So we make sure we have, you know, lots of signage throughout the facility. But at every entrance to the facility, there's a sign showing you what the price would be if you entered at that location.
NNAMDIChris Zimmerman, you heard Sam Johnson talk about the increased efficiency on the roadways in San Diego. What impact do you think that HOT lanes will have on the Shirley Highway? Will the economic incentive improve efficiency on that roadway?
ZIMMERMANWell, I think it's important to note -- and I had the opportunity to visit San Diego some years ago, while doing this work, and to visit their facility -- there are some very different conditions that they had. In particular, they had this situation where they had a road built ahead of a lot of development and it had excess capacity. And they were able to make, they felt, better, you know, better use of that facility. They weren't in the situation we're in now where we have an at-peak facility that we are really using, you know, right up into capacity and sometimes over. So, you know, my point is not that these are bad ideas. And, you know, I do think they need to be looked at carefully, but you have to evaluate the specific circumstances into which they would be implemented.
ZIMMERMANSo Shirley Highway is a very different situation because of the fact that it is so heavily used now. And the concern that we have is that if you don't implement it the right way -- and there's real concern about the way it's supposed to be done -- that you'll wind up, for instance, with traffic spilling over into places like Shirlington, where they introduced an interchange that no one had anticipated and tying up traffic in Alexandria and Arlington in that area, where in Pentagon City, Pentagon area, where the facility would end because it wouldn't -- the way they're proposing to do it goes across the bridge -- it would basically stop at the Pentagon. And so there's that problem.
ZIMMERMANThen there's the question about how is the pricing controlled so that -- what is the effect gonna be on transit vehicles? Transit vehicles are supposed to be able to run, you know, for free on it, still. But if the speed slows down on the road so that it's faster on the HOT lane facility than the regular road, then they can make money on tolls. But if it's slower than it is today, then transit competitiveness goes down. There's a lot of details in here. So, for instance, on the Beltway contract, if too many people ride bus, the state has to pay a penalty. Basically, taxpayers have to pay a penalty to the company if too many people ride transit. Well, that's kind of the reverse incentive. And that's one aspect of this that we haven't really talked about. It's not just a matter of whether the theory of tolling and congestion pricing is right or wrong. It's also the fact that here it is being proposed to be implemented by giving a contract, a long-term contract like 75 years, to a private company, which could then own that road.
NNAMDIHold on. Hold that thought for a second because I think that's what Hunt in Chicago, Ill, wants to talk about. Hunt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HUNTMy name is Hunt, and I had a question about the player of the private sector in this. I think often times efficiency at work as a young professional is affected by travel time and inefficiencies in the transportation systems. And to me, an important player is someone like the private sector employers who are going to end up paying for, like, they do now for E-Z passes for their employees. Or in this case, HOT lane access for their employees. And today, I was wondering how much of a role they've played and if you find that they are also activate players and want to continue to support the system.
NNAMDIThat was not the private sector role that I was thinking of, but since you brought it up, allow me to have Sam Johnson answer that part of the question.
JOHNSONYes. Now, we do have some what we call corporate accounts. But overwhelmingly, the majority of our customers are individuals. So we do allow the corporate accounts, but again, most of our users are the individuals who value the travel time. And that may speak, actually, to the usage. The majority of our usage and when our -- because we're using dynamic pricing -- when our tolls are the highest is really on the way home. People seem to value getting home a little more than they value getting to work. And I think that has to do with childcare and, you know, family occurrences that need to, you know, have a high value on someone's time.
NNAMDIHunt, thank you very much for call. Randal O'Toole, Chris Zimmerman makes the point that the contract in Arlington or in Virginia is going to be given to an outside company that's going to be running these toll lanes for an infinite number of years. So it's not a public operation. It can't be modified once it's approved. Your comment.
JOHNSONWell, we know that private operators can operate much more efficiently than public companies -- public agencies. They can save people lots of money, which means they won't have to charge as high a toll to operate the toll road. We also know that public agencies often will divert the tolls away from the roads to other projects, pork-barrel projects that aren't necessary doing any good for the people who are paying for the tolls. So I think the public is much better off having a private operator run the road than a public agency that wastes money and diverts money to other pork barrel.
ZIMMERMANWell, I certainly don't agree that they -- I mean, it shows that private company taking it over is more efficient. I think that that's something very much open to question, based on experience. But the point I was making wasn't even about whether a private company or, you know, or doing publicly is better. My point was that if there are a lot of details about how you do this that affect whether in the end, it actually helps congestion or makes things worse all throughout Northern Virginia, and the difficulty here is that if we implement this and three or four years later, we say, you know what, this isn't working, you know, we were wrong about a couple of things -- unlike any other publicly run, you know, transportation projects, we can't go to the state and say, hey, now, fix this because you have a private company that now own -- has a right. They own this in effect, and what governs this is the terms under which they get to charge tolls and make money, and you'd have to buy your way out of it again. And that's a different situation.
ZIMMERMANAnd the problem is that we don't know quite what we're getting into. There are a lot of things we do private contracts with, you know, (word?), but we contract out for all kinds of things. We contract out, you know, the local level of things like, you know, garbage collection routes. And you can evaluate them and you know what you're buying and then you can, you know, redo the contract. The difficulty here is this is long term on something we've never done before, so getting out of it will be a real problem which means that if we're going to do it, we better be really sure we figured out how to get it right before we start.
NNAMDIHere is Neil in Columbia, Md. Neil, your turn.
NEILWell, hello. What a great program. I'll just -- I have to mention that I actually work for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association which represents toll agencies. And I just wanted to offer a very quick thought that, in a lot of respects, everyone's been talking about the enormous expense of highway projects. And really what we're all talking about here is bringing -- if federal funding is not available, how can you augment it? And tolling in all -- some cases, certainly with the HOT lanes provides the benefits to folks that don't use it as well. If you can take paying folks that are willing to pay and put them in unused space admittedly Virginia, sometimes that's an issue, because the HOV lanes are well used. But in a lot of cases, a car out of that traffic stream, these people that are not paying, garner that benefit as well.
NNAMDIWho would care to comment on that?
ZIMMERMANWell, I'd like. I'd note that, you know, it's certainly true that we're looking for ways to get funds into transportation because we're not doing the things that would take care of that.
ZIMMERMANYou know, we basically said that no tax should ever be raised again and the gasoline tax has been frozen for a long time. In Virginia, it hasn't been raised in almost a quarter of a century now. If you look at what the gas tax was when the, you know, the system was instituted in the Eisenhower administration, it was something like a quarter of the price of a gallon of gas. And you know, now it's down to something like 5 percent. And every year it falls, because it's not a percentage tax, it's a fixed rate tax. So basically, we've been cutting the gas tax every year even as demands have grown. So that's a problem. And so I understand people looking for funds. The truth, though, is that these projects turn out to need public subsidy anyway. The Beltway project has state money going into it, in addition to any private financing. And the Shirley Highway project has basically held up because the private money isn't there.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have except for this quick one. Randal O'Toole, is there any study on the national trend on variably priced toll lanes and HOT lanes? Will we be seeing more and more of these around the country?
O'TOOLEThey have been increasing all over the country. We've seen them in Minneapolis. We've seen new ones open in Denver. We've seen new ones open in Texas, New Jersey.
NNAMDIAnd a lot of people visiting...
O'TOOLEI think it's a strong trend.
NNAMDIA lot of people visiting Sam Johnson in San Diego. Samuel Johnson is chief technology officer of the San Diego Association of Governments. Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute. And Chris Zimmerman is vice chairman of the Arlington County Board. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" cutting the cable cord. How downloadable movies and premium TV are putting the squeeze on cable subscriptions. Plus Swine Flu fears have faded but regular flu season's back. What vaccinations can and can't do to protect you. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" noon til 2:00 tomorrow on WAMU 88.5.
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