Instead of Courage

I hosted a round table discussion today, Wednesday, 24 September 2008, at the offices of ITS America in Washington DC. Following are the notes I made to open that discussion.
I attended a breakfast speech yesterday morning, during which the Chair of the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority, Rob MacIsaac, described a new multi-year plan to revitalize road and transit infrastructure in the Greater Toronto Area costing multi-tens of billions of dollars.

I asked his view on protecting that investment in roads and transit with road pricing so that people would tend to use the new transit infrastructure and so that the new roads did not simply fill up with cars as they always do, thereby keeping a sustainable balance instead of returning once again to state we are in now.

His answer was: “"The sides of the road are littered with the bodies of politicians that made ill-advised proposals regarding road pricing."

He went on to say "transit needs to be put in first" citing the example of Livingstone putting buses in just prior to the London Congestion system going live.

But I believe there are many creative ways to introduce pricing at the same time we are providing new infrastructure. There are ways to ease pricing into place over such a multi-year span even if you are not putting in infrastructure. I believe there are ways to do this while retaining political support. I believe we must do this in order to shift away from the gas tax. That is what I will describe today, and that is what I would like this round table to explore.
There are now in the United States, in Europe, and in the world thousands of politicians, traffic engineers, legislators, environmentalists, analysts, bureaucrats, economists and thought leaders that know that our surface transportation systems are as unsustainable as they are critical. Some of us work in jurisdictions that are, in fact, in immediate crisis.

What is more amazing is that the vast majority of these thousands understand the problem and its solution. We understand that automobile use is incorrectly taxed. That what direct taxes are collected are insufficient. That large externalities are shared across all people including non-drivers. We understand that the fuel tax is a proxy for road use and as such its relevance to demand management is rapidly diminishing. As a funding source its efficacy slips monthly and as reminder that we pollute with our vehicles it is almost completely powerless.

Some of our thousands call for more roads to be priced – sometimes in small areas as in London or New York; sometimes in whole countries as in Netherlands or Slovenia. But most often, just another interurban highway where we can or where we must price.

But we know better. We know we need to shift away from the gas-tax. We know that is becoming more and more one of the sources of the problem rather than a tool for its resolution. We are beginning to clearly understand that the consumption that needs market pricing is the use of the road rather than the consumption of fuel. We know that as we move away from the gasoline and diesel-powered engine the gas-tax will fail utterly.

Nevertheless, a few days ago, I received an email from Robin Chase [founder of Zipcar], that said: "When I presented to the executive board of TRB [Transportation Research Board], and [market pricing] came up, they all concurred that: “People won't like it; hence their governors won't support it; hence we won't push it. We want to privatize roads so that someone ELSE will be responsible.”

What this says to me is that as our surface transportation systems become unsustainable, there will be no political will to solve it. Rather, we will sell off the problem.

I believe we have alternatives. These involve slowly addressing antiquated enforcement methods such as ticketing courier vehicles, outdated commercial vehicle registration technologies such as taxi plating, inefficient insurance regimes such as annual or monthly automotive premiums with pay-as-you-go forms of payment. Couriers can pay by the mile or minute for driving and parking in urban centers, taxis can pay commercial registration by the mile, so that a plate owner is not forced to run a vehicle 24 hours whether needed or not and so on.

As trust in anonymous GPS tolling technology’s reliability and privacy and as its cost drops, it can be used for parking payments, traditional tolling, and numerous new programs not otherwise feasible – for example tolling an urban center without cameras and RFID/DSRC gantries.

Building an installed base of road-use meters means that when the time comes to turn off the gas tax, an alternate system will be in place. It will be reliable, cheap, trusted and most of all actually understood. Approaching the problem this way, we can diminish the danger of “political suicide” without selling off all easy-to-toll roads, leaving an unaddressed congestion and funding problem for our city streets.

1 comment:

Robin Chase said...

Easing the technology, devices, behavior, and experience into places where it can be implemented is a sound approach and one that seems politically feasible. It is the first step required toward what will be inevitable -- pay-as-you-drive financing of our transportation infrastructure.