The best way to unclog the nation’s highways and repair crumbling bridges is to introduce a payment system similar to movie-ticket pricing and cell-phone rates, the nation’s top transportation official said.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, speaking at an event in northeast Phoenix Wednesday, called on states to charge drivers to use HOV lanes during peak traffic hours.
The result: Just like going to a matinee to save money or waiting until nights and weekends to make cell phone calls, drivers would reap financial benefits from shifting some trips to times when fewer cars are on the road, Peters said.
Peters, a Peoria resident and a former director of the Arizona Department of Transportation, has long pushed the idea of congestion pricing. But she’s now using August’s I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis as an additional argument, saying the nation can no longer rely on the federal gas tax to pay for new roads and repair an endless list of decaying bridges and highways.
The bridge collapse triggered proposals to hike the 18.4-cent tax by 5 cents. Some of that likely would be diverted to lawmakers’ pet projects, Peters said, like the infamous proposal to build a “bridge-to-nowhere” in Alaska or projects not related to highways.
“There is absolutely no question that the way we invest in transportation is broken,” Peters said.
Congestion has grown in every major U.S. city for years, even as transportation spending has skyrocketed, she said. And Peters said every metro area expects traffic to get worse, even where massive transportation projects are planned.The congestion pricing is the only way to immediately improve drive times, Peters said.
Federal officials are testing congestion pricing in five U.S. cities, where drivers are charged to use carpool lanes during peak hours. The fee is set by demand and traffic patterns at different times during the day. Prices range from about $5 to $12 a day.
Arizona can’t do that today because state law prohibits converting free roads or lanes to toll areas, ADOT spokesman Matt Burdick said. The legislature would need to change the law to make that happen, he said.
Peters acknowledged the fees can discourage drivers from taking trips during rush hour. But that’s by design, Peters said, because studies have shown some rush-hour drivers aren’t going to work or making essential trips.
The fees would encourage them to take those trips at times when highways can handle higher traffic volumes.
Freeways would flow significantly faster during peak traffic times if even 5-10 percent of drivers decide to take trips at other times, Peters said.