Tie-ups. Backups. Gridlock. The American commute has never been so painful. Is there any solution?
Cordons. That includes encouraging the implementation of "cordon tolls," which would charge drivers for entering crowded urban areas. Such systems are already in place in London (box, below) and Singapore, but Bloomberg's proposed $8 charge for daytime driving in Manhattan, assessed using E-ZPass technology and cameras, would be a first for America. In announcing his push for tolling, Bloomberg conceded that he had once been a skeptic himself but said he had come to see it as necessary.
The proposal faces an uphill battle in the state Legislature. Trucking unions are already griping because trucks would be charged a whopping $21 for entering Manhattan, and politicians in the city's outer boroughs are unmoved by the mayor's pledge to increase public transit to compensate for the charge.
DOT Secretary Peters concedes that cordon tolling is not politically palatable in most cities and that perhaps the most realistic option is so-called HOT lanes, converted carpool lanes where drivers willing to pay a variable fee can ride with carpools and buses. Though often derided as "Lexus lanes" for the wealthy, they have proved effective in several states as a means of letting those willing to pay avoid gridlock. In Minnesota, which opened its first HOT lanes in 2005, drivers in the lanes travel at an average speed of 50 miles per hour 95 percent of the time. But HOT lanes lack the major benefit of other tolling options for reducing congestion; since people can still use the untolled lanes free, the lanes don't discourage drivers from hitting the road during peak hours, limiting congestion relief. And even congressional Republicans who preach limited government are skeptical that market forces are enough to bust the nation's bottlenecks.
The DOT's plan also encourages states to follow a growing trend of seeking private financing for building or managing roads. An Australian-Spanish consortium paid $1.8 billion for a 99-year lease of the Chicago Skyway in 2004, and a number of states have inked long-term leases of toll roads or are considering it. Both the New Jersey and Pennsylvania turnpikes could go on the auction block soon.
However, both the American Automobile Association and the American Trucking Associations are wary of leasing highways, and previous leases have sometimes borne out their concerns. The deals often forbid government to build roads that would compete with the private toll road. After selling a private company the right to operate HOT lanes on the Riverside Freeway for $120 million in the late '80s, officials in Orange County, Calif., had to buy them in 2003 for more than $200 million to make improvements on the road's untolled lanes. In Indiana, the Republican loss of its House majority in November was blamed in part on Gov. Mitch Daniels's unpopular 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road, which led to a toll hike.
"There is certainly a strongly held belief in this country that roads are for the public benefit ... and that they are free," says Bill Graves, the president of the ATA and former governor of Kansas.