Leapfrog, Anyone?

It is commonly thought by road-pricing pundits of the nation-wide tolling persuasion that the United States is a decade behind the European Union in readiness to execute. That’s certainly what I thought in 2003, when Minister Alastair Darling was pitching a national road-pricing system in Britain and the London Congestion Charge was still flush with early success.  I no longer think this is true.

Of all the changes since EU optimism has dampened, two stand out.  The EU has canceled, delayed, curtailed or diminished more road-pricing systems and proposals than it has sustained, and the focus has shifted from environmental sustainability (congestion, emissions, livability) to funding.

This sea-change from the benevolent chirps of EU congestion pricing to the grizzly roar of a starving US Highway Trust Fund is decisive. Money speaks louder than livability (even as BP pours oil into the Gulf, anti-tolling newspaper comments from people who can’t make the connection continue apace in Toronto).

This has a couple of implications. The first is that the US is getting serious about national road-pricing and balanced against the EU's halting accomplishments, this has closed the execution gap to 3 or 4 years. I split this shrinkage evenly between the EU's faltering progress and the recent American awakening. While that hardly predicts when a full shift will occur, it says the US may close the gap completely in the next two years.

The second is that a panic-based focus on funding sustainability engenders poor system designs. A "money-now, demand-management-later" criteria leads to solutions that serve to rob us of demand-management tools that transport economists have demanded for 55 years. Every dollar sunk into wrong-focused solutions will cost us ten dollars to undo, later.

As an example, a draft US study in progress currently lists eight charging solutions but only one provides the full tool-set needed to address congestion, funding and emissions, while promoting a shift to EVs. While the well-respected team working on this understands the risks, cash-starved decision-makers acting on the final report may not. We run the risk of politicians selecting an expedient pathway to money, say by reading odometers or tolling only limited access highways that will heavily mortgage our future ability to manage demand. It may even force us into the long-discredited view that we should try to build our way out of congestion.

We should think harder about why and where we are about to leap.

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