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Capital congestion: how DC aims to solve traffic problems

Traffic congestion in DC
Traffic congestion in DC

DC commuters are unconvinced that congestion pricing will reduce traffic in the metropolitan Washington area and raise revenues to fund transportation projects. As an alternative, they favor other options to driving — commuter rail, rapid bus service, or bicycling/walking.

A report released by the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB), together with Brookings, evaluated the attitudes of about 300 residents who participated in five forums: two in Virginia, two in Maryland, and one in the District of Columbia. Participants were asked whether more information and education about pricing could influence attitudes, considering the following situations: 1) placing tolls on all major roadways; 2) charging a fee per-mile measured by GPS systems in cars; and 3) charging by zone whenever drivers enter specific designated areas.

It is an interesting time to be probing such attitudes, as the Metro’s Silver Line is yet to be funded, and fluctuations in state gasoline tax are being tested in Virginia and Maryland. However, the funding scenarios posed to the study participants received lukewarm support.
Said John Swanson, a TPB planner, “[Participants] really want to make sure that there are clear benefits, that [congestion pricing] is going to fund new transportation alternatives… particularly transit and high quality bus [service].”

The first scenario – charging tolls on all major roadways – was supported by 60 percent of study participants. Scenario two – using GPS to track miles traveled – was opposed by 86 percent, even though drivers’ actual routes would not be tracked, only the number of miles, based on the notion that it would be an expensive implementation. They found the mileage-based fee more confusing and less predictable than a gas tax. They worried that it would be “another unknown bill at the end of the month” and didn’t like the idea of not knowing at any given moment how much their commute would cost. Scenario 3, within the course of the half-day workshops and discussions, lost all interest.

The stress of congestion was exhibited in personal terms – less time for family, stress of traffic, or lack of non-motorized options. The availability of alternative options, such as transit, walking and biking, increased receptiveness to pricing. Additionally, the report prescribes more sound land use policies committed to greater access to transit and dense neighborhoods built around walkability to best relieve the region’s congestion and traffic jams.

“Newcomers to the region are very frequently choosing the city or a place near transit rather than a place where they have no option but to drive,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Schwartz continues, “What’s most interesting about this report is that it was an effort to seek public support for congestion pricing, but what it documented was the much stronger support for transit and improvements in how we plan land use in order to give people more choices to get around.”

85 percent of study participants identified transportation funding deficits as a critical problem, yet communicated doubts that the government would spend revenues from congestion pricing efficiently.

Congestion resonates as a huge problem more so than funding shortages. Participants who said they wanted more transportation alternatives hardly connected the lack of options to the lack of funding. Many said they lack confidence in the government’s ability to solve transportation problems even if enough funding were available.

To the participants’ credit – implementation is difficult. It should come as no surprise that such a study would receive tepid feedback, seeing as many experience a lack of alternative modes of transportation. Congestion pricing would be based on roads that are not priced. Gas taxes are not related to any particular road. Thus, going from the current situation to implementing costs on segments of roads immediately causes subsequent effects. One road is priced, and drivers find a new route.

It is almost impossible to toll or tax your way out of a traffic problem, and none of these proposals will reduce the number of cars on the road. People drive not because they want to, but because they have to.

As COG officials contest, if and when implemented, congestion pricing should be a part of a more extensive transportation strategy, stressing the importance of mixed-use development and mass transit.


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