Mary Peters: Woman with a Vision

Seems I just can’t get enough of the US Secretary of Transportation. On Monday (2008-04-28) Secretary Peters spoke at the Brookings Institution. You can watch or read. While she spoke about a lot of things and fielded a bunch of questions, I cherry-pick two things for you:

Mary Peters is NOT seeing market pricing as a way to maximize revenue, rather as a way to maximize network performance – i.e. reduce congestion, reduce emissions and funding will come with it.

“Congestion is at its worst ever in the United States today and only predicted to grow worse if we don’t do something about it. Americans are no longer willing to pay an unresponsive, unsustainable, unpopular gas tax, or certainly not to increase that gas tax. That is the gold ring opportunity that we have before us, to substantially change that system and move it forward in the future to something that is more user responsive and more market-based.”
Q: “Are [HOT] lanes the final step or an interim step?”
A: “…a stepping stone. …[it] gets people acclimated to paying a fee for use of a section of roadway at a peak period of time. I believe that eventually here in America we will go to a vehicle miles traveled form of pricing. Some sections will be congestion pricing or convenience pricing,* I should say, convenience priced for the time of day that you’re using them. Others may be a flat fee, particularly in rural areas. But I see us moving away from the gas tax at some future point, probably almost entirely. In the near term, it’s a transitional strategy. Let me take the opportunity, if I may, at your question to talk about why not a gas tax. I talked about the fact that Americans are less trusting of the gas tax, less trusting that it will be invested in a way that makes a positive difference in the way they use the transportation solution.

*Newt Gingrich proposed this term!


Al Gore's new Slide Deck

Al Gore's new slide deck makes a couple of strong points. One stands out for me:
Tax carbon instead of income.

The single greatest underutilized tool available to deal with environmental issues is to change what we tax. This is called tax-shifting and is starting to gain currency.

The single greatest underutilized tool we have to deal with congestion is to change what we tax.
Tax road-use instead of fuel.


Requiem for New York

Since its inception, I have been a critic of Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing scheme because of its Rube Goldberg architecture, but I have always admired the Mayor’s courage. Few people fight for something they believe in as tirelessly as he has. Fewer still are so willing to compromise. The New York congestion-charging plan has undergone more changes than a showgirl in a casino revue, softening its punch, diluting its effectiveness, but ultimately never pleasing enough people to carry the day.

In the end, the New York state legislature simply didn’t vote, and the congestion charge went out with a whimper. "What we are witnessing today is one of the biggest cop-outs in New York's history," eulogized John Gallagher, a Bloomberg spokesman.

Reuters/Mike Segar

I’d like to think that in the gap between ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘doing the thing right’ this program just didn’t make it. But that is not the main reason for its failure. This was a lot more about not-in-my-back-yardism, and plain wrong-headedness.

One of the most pitiful excuses was made by Democratic Assemblyman Ruben Diaz who said the plan failed “to address traffic jams it would cause outside of Manhattan.” I can just imagine cars driving right up to the edge of the congestion zone and driving around like a bunch of kids trying to crash a sold-out rock concert.

Clearly Mr Diaz in unaware of a useful lesson from the London Congestion Charge: reducing the number of vehicles entering a central congestion zone reduces the number of vehicles in the surrounding areas. Folks who decide to avoid the zone leave their car somewhere between their driveway and the edge of the zone – not all right at the edge. Yes, many will drive part way, park, and take an alternative the rest of the way. But they would have driven that far when they were driving the whole way anyway, so where is the extra “traffic jam” coming from? Who advises these assemblymen and why do journalists just repeat what illogical politicians have to say?

So while this has been a bit of a eulogy for the Mayor’s plan, this is really a Requiem for New York. Blessed with a leader of vision, stamina and flexibility, New York did their best to waste an opportunity to start sorting out Manhattan’s crippling congestion and picking up about a third of a billion from the feds for their trouble.

oh my, a second Canadian who blogs about congestion pricing! What's this country coming to?