Moving on From Tolls

speakout
by John Bowman, Greenwich

I was not surprised to see that the Transportation Strategy Board decided this week to decide nothing – I was somewhat relieved. The million-dollar study and TSB (in)actions need to be publicized (read exposed) so they never happen again. Quite simply, tolls other than those that might finance a needed new road or HOV lane, are a bad idea.

TSB Chairman Kevin Kelleher was quoted in the Connecticut Post as saying:

“We don’t have in any way, shape or form from the document a way to say option A,B,C,D,E,F,G, or H is the way the state should go.”

Well, TSB proudly touted earlier in the week in Norwalk that they had commissioned a study that would provide information about the different options and NOT include recommendations, so why complain when the study didn’t include recommendations?

I guess they were hoping for an obvious choice to emerge. It did, they just couldn’t see it: all the options are bad. Either they just missed the point or didn’t want to disappoint proponents in the legislature by telling them something they don’t want to hear: Sorry, our highways are not your new pot of gold to plunder.

Kelleher was further quoted:

“Without further consideration to quantify how much traffic might divert to Route 1 in Fairfield County, it would be difficult to ratify the concept of border tolls.”

We paid one million dollars for the report, and it included diversion numbers for every option – with a special diversion section for the border toll option – so what further study is needed? I guess they didn’t like the numbers because they made that popular-with-legislators option sour, so maybe another study will produce better numbers. If the numbers provided in the million-dollar study are not good, will we get our money back?

We’re not out of the woods yet. By not recommending no tolls, the TSB has left that option open to the legislature for further consideration. They don’t need TSB approval to do something; they are very, very good at levying taxes all on their own.

I should mention my personal connection to all this. I was at the Norwalk hearing to testify on behalf of the Byram (Greenwich) Neighborhood Association against border tolls at the I-95 NY border. And yes, I read the whole study, several times. This option, according to the study, would send 14,000 cars/day through Byram and Port Chester, an area where the border is a river, and the options are two other bridges that are connected by two already very congested roads. This option would destroy our neighborhood and is completely unworkable. As much was stated in the report, yet the TSB couldn’t even say that this option should go off the table, so I’m still worried.

At this point, the TSB should either recommend the obvious, that the toll options are unworkable and not recommended, or they should resign for wasting one million dollars.

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5 responses to “Moving on From Tolls

  1. Putting tolls, on I-95 in Fairfield County at least, is a completely unworkable idea, as anyone who commutes or has had to travel on I-95 during rush hour realizes. Between 7 and 9:30 a.m. and between 4 and 6:30 p.m. (time frames that are rapidly extending) the highway is at best stop-and-go; traffic rarely goes above 40 mph and is often completely stopped. It takes an average minimum of 45 minutes to travel 20 miles. A fender bender extends that to well over an hour. People bailing off the highway onto the Post Road and local roads find those routes bumper-to-bumper as well because many people are trying to find alternate routes. It is difficult to imagine anything other than a total standstill if tolls were put on the highway, no matter if they are the old “toss a coin” type or an “ez pass” type. Anything that further slows the flow of traffic on the highway will bring it to a halt. More cars getting off I-95 onto local roads will make it impossible for people living in the bordering towns to go about their business — picture the nightmare mix of morning commuters and school buses sharing narrow roads.

    Additionally, we’ve noticed that I-95 in the Fairfield County area is increasingly travelled during midday as well, with frequent backups. I think the highway has pretty much reached critical mass in terms of accommodating the increased population of the area. Tolls would make a horrible situation worse.

    I’m not opposed to tolls as a way to gain revenue for highway maintenance; I think it’s a pretty good idea, actually. But only if it’s workable. And it most certainly isn’t workable in this area, in any iteration I can think of.

    What surprises me is that they had to spend $1 million to even think about it — unless of course their ultimate plan is to force people to use mass transit for commuting.

  2. johningreenwich

    All of the tolling proposals were for “cashless” tolls. You would either pay by EZ Pass or a photo would be taken of your license plate and you would be billed. Canada has systems like this in place.

  3. All of the tolling proposals were for “cashless” tolls. You would either pay by EZ Pass or a photo would be taken of your license plate and you would be billed. Canada has systems like this in place.

    I had a friend from Canada who moved to Connecticut. He said that when he went back to Ontario with his car with CT plates, he’d never get a bill on the 407 toll road , because Ontario didn’t have a sharing arrangement with Connecticut like it has with New York. They’d take a picture of his license plate, but they had no idea where to send the bill… The 407 is expensive: something like C$0.20 per kilometer.

    In any event, if we had the photo sensors and EZ Pass but no toll booth, we’d probably need to ensure that we had relationships with states other than MA, NY and RI, lest drivers from say PA or NJ get to go free. It’d also be more fair if we could put toll booths not just at the border. But I guess it’s all moot anyway.

  4. Putting tolls, on I-95 in Fairfield County at least, is a completely unworkable idea, as anyone who commutes or has had to travel on I-95 during rush hour realizes. Between 7 and 9:30 a.m. and between 4 and 6:30 p.m. (time frames that are rapidly extending) the highway is at best stop-and-go; traffic rarely goes above 40 mph and is often completely stopped. It takes an average minimum of 45 minutes to travel 20 miles. A fender bender extends that to well over an hour. People bailing off the highway onto the Post Road and local roads find those routes bumper-to-bumper as well because many people are trying to find alternate routes. It is difficult to imagine anything other than a total standstill if tolls were put on the highway, no matter if they are the old “toss a coin” type or an “ez pass” type. Anything that further slows the flow of traffic on the highway will bring it to a halt. More cars getting off I-95 onto local roads will make it impossible for people living in the bordering towns to go about their business — picture the nightmare mix of morning commuters and school buses sharing narrow roads.

    This comment made me think of this blogosphere debate from a while back.

    Building a highway, after all, costs money. But it creates something of value — the chance to drive on an uncrowded roadway. But if you just give this valuable opportunity away for free, then people wind up consuming too much of it and soon enough there’s no uncrowded roadway left. It’s just like overfishing or any other “tragedy of the commons” issue. When you see construction of a new, unpriced and it’s not likely that it’ll soon become overcrowded, you’re looking at a porkalicious “bridge to nowhere” sort of phenomenon where people are constructing something that has a cost out of proportion to its value. Anything that’s genuinely valuable and also given away for free is going to wind up overconsumed.

    Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t build roads. Reasonably uncrowded highways really are valuable and we should want to have them near our major economic centers. But to get that we need to charge for access to them during peak travel periods. That will, when done appropriately, ease the overcrowding and create revenues that can subsidize activities with small-to-zero marginal costs like non-peak driving and rail travel.

    Related to this, I wonder why we put up with peak-hour pricing on the trains, but not on the highways.

  5. Just about any economist is going to admit that congestion pricing on highways would make them less crowded during peak periods. If you had high tolls during rush hour, people will shift their driving habits to avoid the high tolls. They’ll either ask if they can come to work and leave work earlier (or later), they won’t go to social events until after rush hour is over, they’ll carpool, etc.

    I think the problem with tolls just at the border crossings in Fairfield county, however, are with the transaction costs. Even though EZ Pass has been around for a decade at least, when you cross the GWB or other major crossing around here, you realize that a lot of people still don’t have the EZ Pass unit, and they have to pay cash. The cash payers line quickly backs up the maximum distance, and then you’ve got the EZ Pass people having to wait.

    Someone suggested a system like they have on the 407 highway outside of Toronto: a transponder based system, coupled with a photo to take pictures of license plates so bills could be automatically sent to people without transponders.

    There are several problems with this approach from a practical perspective. First, 95 has a huge number of drivers that aren’t from CT or surrounding states, and it’s unlikely CT would be able to determine who these people were. Second, by having a toll only at the border, you’d get a lot of people trying to avoid the toll. The areas in Greenwich and Port Chester have a fair number of exits from the highway, and it’s highly likely that you’d get a lot of people getting off the highway in PC and then reëntering the highway in Greenwich, either at exit 2 or exit 3.

    You’d have to put up the electronic toll gates every 15 miles or so, and do it in places that were fairly far between exits. However, 95 has almost an exit per mile, so there aren’t many places where this could be done, but there are a few, such as between exits 17 and 18 in Westport. Putting up five or six toll booths (well, electronic readers) would mean that the border tolls wouldn’t be so high, so there wouldn’t be as much of a reward for avoiding them.

    That was crazy just having tolls at the border. Someone driving from Greenwich to Foxwoods would pay zero toll, but someone going from Greenwich to the Home Depot in Port Chester would be hit with a hefty toll? Why does that make sense at all? It’s not like Delaware, where there’s a massive bridge at the state line… It’s a tiny river, with lots of side streets crossing it.

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