Mazucca: Toll road to Vail?
“Will people pay to drive to Vail?” read the headline Saturday before last in the Vail Daily. Colorado State Sen. Chris Romer has proposed plan to reduce congestion on I-70 by using incentives (tolls, rebates, etc.) to drive on the Interstate between Denver and Vail during peak weekend hours.
But why should we have to pay to use a highway we’ve already paid for with our tax dollars? The answer is simple: In the absence of additional lanes or mass transit, driving patterns need to change ” and incentives change behavior.
Traffic problems aren’t exclusive to modern times. As far back as 45 B.C. Julius Caesar restricted the use of carts in Rome during daylight hours to reduce traffic congestion for that city’s 1.1 million citizens. But since push carts are no longer in vogue, the real question is what are we doing to reduce traffic congestion in the 21st century?
Some jurisdictions have banned cars altogether, others charge tolls or fees on highly utilized roadways, and others designate streets one-way during specified hours and then reverse the flow when traffic abates. But the one constant is that every situation is unique, making it essential that government views any proposal to modify traffic patterns in terms of the incentives they create rather than the goals they proclaim. Said another way, consequences ” including unintended ones ” matter more than intentions.
One of the more egregious examples of government failing to look at the incentives they created rather than the goals they proclaimed occurred during the Carter administration when Congress imposed a luxury sales tax on expensive pleasure boats. Instead of reaping additional tax dollars from the wealthy that were the targets of this tax, “the rich” quit buying luxury cruisers and yachts to avoid the 10 percent surcharge, which resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs, not to mention the unrealized tax revenue when boat manufacturers began to lay-off their workers.
Nonetheless, there are many positives to providing incentives to change traffic patterns. Obviously there would be a reduction in the “hassle factor” of driving a bumper-to-bumper I-70 on weekends, but proper incentives could also reduce the amount of wasted time and fuel caused by cars idling at the entrance to the Eisenhower Tunnel ” not to mention the un-measured costs to health and the environment those idling cars cause.
Most studies on traffic congestion evaluate commuter traffic in large urban areas and not traffic resulting from people driving 100 miles to ski Gandy Dancer on a Saturday. Nevertheless, human nature is human nature whether driving to work or to the ski slopes ” meaning that incentives work, provided of course they are the right
incentives. The Hoover Institution’s scholar-in-residence Thomas Sowell tell us: “Like most things that are available without an explicit charge, road and highways tend to be used far beyond how much they would be used if the hidden costs had to be paid in cash whenever these things are used.”
When Singapore instituted tolls on designated roads, the average speed of traffic there increased by 60 percent. When the city of Stockholm introduced similar measures, the number of vehicles driving during peak hours decreased by 25 percent as commuters chose to drive either earlier or later to avoid the extra fees.
Adding extra lanes to I-70 would likely have an ameliorating effect on skier traffic, just as it did in Houston when that city increased its road network 100 miles a year between 1986 and 1992 and traffic congestion declined by 22 percent. However, when road building stopped in 1993, traffic delays doubled.
Some believe light rail is the answer to I-70 congestion; and for any number of very good reasons I would like to believe some type of mass-transit is the best solution to the problem. But then I’m reminded of the old saw, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Our highway planners must remain cognizant that the automobile is more than just transportation to Americans. To an American, an automobile means freedom; and it would be wise to thoroughly evaluate whether or not Front Rangers really would eschew their SUVs in favor of hopping a train to Vail.
While millions of Americans use mass transit every day, mass transit usage is decreasing in the United States. In 2005, there were two million fewer mass-transit users than there were in 1960, when there were 60 million fewer workers. That places into question the efficacy of a mass transit solution.
The economic and logistical challenges to either widen I-70 or build some form of mass transit are staggering, which is why Sen. Romer’s plan has merit inasmuch as it proposes a method (tolls) to fund either remedy. The idea of using incentives to modify behavior, i.e. driving patterns on I-70, is a good one. But as with most issues of this complexity, the devil will be in the details.
Quote of the day: “If all the cars in Colorado were placed end to end, it would probably be President’s Day Weekend.”
Butch Mazzuca is a business consultant and writes a column for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.