Swedes Approve Congestion Tolls

The citizens of Stockholm, Sweden, have voted in a referendum to approve “congestion pricing” as a permanent solution to reduce traffic congestion in their densely populated city. The vote follows an experiment in which motorists were charged a toll that varied by time of day when they passed any one of 23 tolling points around the central city.

An article in the Wall Street Journal (summarized on this blog) noted that the tolls reduced congestion by changing many peoples’ behavior. Many Stockholm residents switched to buses and bikes for transport, or changed their routes entirely. Thanks to the dynamics of traffic flow, an arithmetical reduction in peak traffic leads to a geometric reduction in congestion.

Congestion pricing is a congestion-mitigation tool being considered in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Transportation is studying the application of the strategy in Hampton Roads, while Del. Chris Saxman, R-Staunton, has submitted bills that would encourage Virginia to participate in a federal congestion-pricing pilot project.

Details of the Swedish vote come to me by way of C.P. Zilliacus, principal transportation engineer with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. You can read the account in the Dagens Nyheter here. If you don’t read Swedish, you may not get very far. Fortunately, Zilliacus is fluent in the Nordic tongue. And it appears from his translation that the new center/right government is doing in Sweden exactly what I recommended in my recent column (“The Swedish Solution“) be done in Virginia, which is to plow revenue from the congestion tolls into transportation improvements.

If the Governor and lawmakers are looking for a long-term, sustainable source of transportation revenues, this is the best way to get it. Unlike taxing people when they purchase automobiles or buy car insurance, which does nothing to induce positive changes in behavior, congestion pricing both (a) raises revenue, and (b) induces people to drive less.

If we add the proviso here in Virginia that all congestion-tolling revenues in are to be reinvested in the same traffic corridor, we could create a self-regulating mechanism that would ensure that no more money was being taxed than was actually needed. It would work like this: Congestion tolls would raise money for new projects — new lanes of roadway, more buses, more bus stations, traffic light synchronization, incident-response management, etc. Those new projects would reduce congestion… Less congestion would mean lower tolls… at least for a while.

Contrast that with plans to raise $1 billion or more in general fund revenues. Those taxes would never be removed, and the money would be spent regardless of the demand for new projects. What the congestion-pricing scheme would not do is subsidize construction of road projects designed to open new areas to develop.

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13 responses to “Swedes Approve Congestion Tolls”

  1. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Jim – Congestion pricing is about transportation. The tax increase proposed by the Governor and the Senate is primarily about real estate development. The referenda in 2002 were about development, and the proponents thereof are still looking for money to keep the old system going.

    “If you keep on doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve been getting.” If we want to make changes in transportation results, we need to make changes in how we address transportation.

    The people who can play today’s system and win have no interest in changing the system. They are not foolish people. They are fortunate to have good servants in the form of Senator Chichester and his allies of both parties, Governor Kaine (more of the time) and the MSM. Those who want change must work harder.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’m with TMT on this. Congestion pricing via electronic tolls is something we can do on many roads right now – and as the US DOT report alluded to in a previous BLOG – congestion pricing actually provides MORE capacity – significantly more capacity while collecting and setting aside revenues for future transportation improvements.

    This is something that the Senate and Kaine could have signed on to .. with or without their precious new taxes and yet it was the baby out with the bath water because as TMT opines… it’s not about transportation .. it’s really about business as usual where taxpayers continue to cough up the money required to enable subsidized development.

    Yes.. our developer friends do indeed want to combine land-use with transporation but not in the way that people have been led to believe.

  3. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing.

    Everything you say about congestion pricing is correct. The problem is the Northern Virginia Program is a Value Pricing Pilot Program (VPPP) http://www.ops.fhwa.dot.gov/tolling_pricing/value_pricing/index.htm
    “… The Capital Beltway (I-495) will receive particular attention in light of the recent submittal and VDOT’s consideration of a proposal to implement HOT lanes on I-495 under Virginia’s Public Private Transportation Act.” In other words, it is a program to use value pricing to extract tolls for the citizens in Northern Virginia. Ask the users of the Greenway about toll increases. There is no connection between reducing congestion and these projects. Would less congestion mean lower toll revenue? Ask the Pocahontas Parkway bond holders about lower revenue. Did less traffic mean lower tolls?
    The easy test. Are bonds involved? If bonds are, hold onto your bill fold. Someone is trying to get something from you. Congestion Pricing is being used in Virginia to hide the Value Pricing HOT lane program. More buses, more bus stations, traffic light synchronization, incident-response management, etc. are all good projects that don’t require bonding.
    Adding lanes in areas of congestion is like buying a bigger belt to lose weight. You should specifically exclude added lanes from any future discussions of congestion pricing projects.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Congestion pricing will induce some people to drive less at certain times and places. That’s a good thing. Unless you own a business in one of those places.

    It isn’t at all clear that people will drive less overall. For that you will need a gas tax that works.

    If Wamsley’s arguemnt is right, then it would apply to all transportation. If Metro is crowded lets not add more cars, it will just induce more people to ride, and simce we lose money on every one of them we’ll be spending more to ride on cars that are just as crowded.

    Metro hasn’t reduced congestion, either. What it has done is added more capacity. Additional lanes will also add capacity, even if they are still congested. However, additional lanes can add capacity in places Metro does not serve.

    The important thing is to consider transportation as a system and apply additional capacity of whatever kind where it will do the most good for the least cost. As it stands now, Metro buses lose even more money than metro rail, so more buses might not be the best choice.

    Certainly the idea that there should be no future discussion of added lanes is nonsense. But if you really want to relieve congestion, then the thing to do is put the things that are causing congestion farther apart.

    Less congestion and less traffic are not the same thing.

  5. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley


    My argument is right, and applies to all transportation. If Metro is crowded lets add more cars, it will induce more people to ride. It will also move individuals from their automobiles.

    We do not loose money on every Metro rider. The old saying “What we loose on each sale we make up in volume” applies. Orange line riders agree that they are spending more to ride on cars that are just as crowded.

    The problem with adding lanes to the interstates or the Virginia VPPP is the congestion on the connecting highways and the neighboring communities. Until you eliminate congestion on the 14th Street Bridge, lanes on the beltway are a waste of taxpayers money. It is that simple.

    Congestion in the Roselyn tunnel will limit future Metro expansion. Not adding more cars before the tunnel is congested is a bad move. Adding cars that will sit in a backup is stupid. Just as adding lanes to the interstate so more automobiles can sit in traffic is stupid.

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar

    How many Metro riders use their cars to get to Metro?

    It’s a system.

    Metro riders pay only a small portion of the operating cost of the trip, let alone the capital costs, VRE even less. The difference is made up from auto drivers. Some of them (ostensibly but not practically) benefit from less congestion as a result of Metro, and some dont.

    If roads are crowded and you add more lanes, more people will drive to support Metro. At the same time, those who drive instead of using Metro are paying a higher percentage of their own costs than the Metro riders are, thus saving us money.

    You assume that moving individuals from their cars is a good thing, and it might not be always so. The individual can make that determination better than you or I can. I think that falls in the category of what TMT called politically correct rhetoric.

    I still maintain the argument is nonsense. While I don’t think LOS is the right metric, I agree with TMT that what we need is a neutral and honest evaluation.

    You are right about the fourteenth street bridge: you have congestion when you have too many people in the same place at the same time. So tell me, what happened to the Three Sisters bridge?

    I don’t understand your comment about the Rosslyn tunnel. It sounds backwards to me. The Orange trains are already backed up against each other because they cannot load and unload quickly enough. When you add more cars they will back up to each other that much sooner and take that much longer to load and unload.

    The Rosslyn tunnel has the same problem that VRE has. Trains leave Manassas and F’burg a half hour apart. But the lines merge in Alexandria, so now the trains are only 15 minutes apart, and any glitch throws everything off.

    Sounds a lot like a highway merge, doesn’t it? The real answer is to stop trying to take 3.5 million people downtown every morning, and that is what congestion pricing will help do.

    The question is, where will they go? Danville?

    I’m only half joking when I say that for what Metro costs, we could just build some office buildings where the outlying stations are now, and give them away rent free. Instead of driving to the Metro and riding to the office, you could just drive to the office and be done with it.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: congestion pricing and congestion

    The US DOT article is clear about what the optimum traffic flow can be.

    The TOLLs, unless we have idiots in charge, is explicitly set to manage the congestion to a level that is close to optimum flow. Ipso facto. This true is NOT rocket science but simple logic.

    The beauty of this system is that it does not require added capacity per se AND the whole time it operates – it’s building funding.

    Folks can argue about how to spend that funding but I guess folks (besides not reading the US DOT Report) are NOT listening when the EPA is telling the Wash Metro Area – NO MORE ROADS unless they are HOT/HOV roads.

    It’s NOT a matter of congestion nor road capacity. It’s a matter of air quality standards that the Wash Metro area are very close to exceeding.

    The penalty for exceedance is sequestering of road funds.

    In other words, even if NoVa could somehow get it’s hands on a gazillion dollars they could not spend a dime on one inch of new pavement if it exceeded the air quality standards.

    These standards… by the way are not some pie-in-the-sky numbers – they are, in fact, the thresholds when children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are directly impacted and require medical care.

    I often wonder … for the folks who are apparently pro-road at any cost – how they feel about trading health impacts to kids in exchange for the ability of folks to drive SOLO SUVS at RUSH HOUR.

    It’s as if this issue and the EPA standards do not exist…

  8. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    I don’t profess to be an expert on air quality or the EPA. I suspect that automobiles produce a lot less pollution than they used to produce. I’ve also read where China is causing about one-third of California’s air pollution. I’m not fully persuaded that air quality necessarily causes all of the health problems that some claim it does.

    But air quality is an issue in Virginia and the rest of Metro D.C. The EPA does have considerable authority in this area and has indicated it could shut down all transportation funding for violations.

    So why, if the goal is to have intelligent debate, doesn’t the MSM discuss EPA/air quality in connection with the transportation issue in Virginia? I understand why the road-building crowd tries to avoid the issue. I also understand why the environmentalist groups try to make it bigger than it is. But why do both public officials and the MSM simply not tie the two together?

    If it is unlikely that, even if the House of Delegates surrendered to Senator Chichester and raised taxes for transportation, EPA rulings would still prevent any substantial road construction in NoVA, why isn’t this being discussed? In the business world, intentional concealing of material facts creates serious legal problems. Try selling securities while hiding material facts. Why is it acceptable for the MSM and some elected officials to try to obtain taxpayer money for transportation while concealing the fact that the EPA is likely to prevent the roads from being built? IMHO, it is not acceptable.

    Perhaps, this blog should inquire of Senator Chichester and the Governor’s office about their positions on this issue.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    You stated the air quality issue much better than I.

    Indeed – it’s odd that there is virtually no discussion about this.

    Metro DC .. CAN build infrastructure – as long as it results in no net increase in air pollution.

    That means the TYPE of project is at issue.

    That, in turn, means a list of projects that will conform to the air quality requirements.

    Where is the list of these projects in the Senate Plan?

    Ditto for Hampton Roads except throw in the Port stuff.

    By the way – where exactly is the busiest port in the US?

    Why… it’s located where the busiest, most congested highways are in the US – Los Angeles.

    Is the LA Port about to shut down from the “crisis” congestion levels?

    The folks who want to raise taxes KNOW that if they talk specifics… in terms of projects … that it will divert the focus to the real issues – which is transportation cost-effectiveness – “bang for the buck” and so that is a conversation that advocates of raising taxes simply do not want to discuss.

    They want, in essence, a slush fund… that can be used..”under the covers” to build politically favored roads.

    And the papers… most.. are parrots of the new tax advocates with about as much brainpower… on any kind of a substantive discussion the transportation issue other than to use it as the proverbial “cry wolf” bleat.

  10. Ray Hyde Avatar

    The air quality issue is a biggie. Maybe EPA will turn out to be TMT’s salvation instead of the local BOS. And what happens when EPA starts to exclude other sources that don’t include roads, like lawnmowers. Is there a point beyond which you can accept no more lawnmowers, or office buildings or garbage trucks, just as there is a point where you can accept no more roads?

    Then what?

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    You accept infrastructure, facilities, etc that pollute less so that over time, you draw down.

    You also incentivize lower polluting activities .. or to put it the other way, penalize higher polluting activities.

    Congestion Pricing would result in LESS pollution and better overall efficiency.

    Also… transit… pollutes less than cars on a per rider basis so money on transit will be approved whereas money for non HOV/HOT roads will not – even if the Va GA approves that money.

  12. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Also… transit… pollutes less than cars on a per rider basis .]

    I think if you study this carefully you will find it is either a myth or a wash.

    Rail transit depends on electricity which has a high percentage of waste. Rail cars roll easily, but they are tremendously heavy, and the energy costs are high. Imagine accelerating a metro car and then dissipating all that energy as heat in the disc brakes all day; even my hybrid has more sense than that, and it makes fewer stops.

    Rail moves a tremendous number of empty seats because it is moving while cars are parked. Rail depends on a large number of employees fanning out all over the system, and many of them drive to work: that is an off the books energy cost that autos don’t have. You step out the door walk a few steps and then the auto is doing its job. For Metro hundreds of people have to go somewhere before the train carries its first passenger.

    Then there is the energy costs for the stations and the rails, amortized over many years, but a huge cost. Cement and steel are very energy intensive (so is asphault). But if rail had to serve all the places autos do,you would find out that rail took a lot more energy.

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: rail pollutes less

    excellent observations and I’ll be honest I don’t know the data.

    But again – we’re confusing specifics of the environment in general with air pollution in the Wash Metro Area.

    In terms of air pollution – electricity generated outside of the Wash Metro area is – NOT polluting .. INSIDE of the Wash Metro area like the automobiles being operated are.

    It’s the Air Quality in the Wash Metro Area that is at issue in terms of the ability to money spent on new infrastructure.

    This, interestingly, is the same argument with respect to plug-in hybrids (which are re-charged at night from electricity).

    The claim is that one is merely “trading” pollution generation sources but if one looks further into it – they will find that electricity generated even at a coal-powered plan is less polluting per energy unit than burning gasoline.

    So – four things are happening when we power Metro by electricity.

    1. – The pollution being generated is external

    2. – Electricity produced at big power plants is less polluting than gasoline on a per car basis.

    3. – Metro at rush hour – is far less polluting than automobiles at rush hour – when traffic congestion results in many cars in stalled/stop/go traffic – each polluting even at idle whereas hybrid cars .. do not – ditto.. when Metro is stopped.. it not and when it runs.. full cars.. very efficient compared to SOLO SUVs at rush hour.

    4. – If Metro utilizes Nuke power – the equation tilts even more in Metro favor – in terms of air pollution – no matter whether it is in WashMetro or external.

    Again – it is important to distinquish between matters specific to the Wash Metro area – and general environmental issues.

    Air Pollution in the WashMetro area is the target – even if the solution may be a “wash” on a more general level.

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