Regional congestion relief for the cost of a latte
If you drive to work, you probably battle ever-worsening traffic, making you stressed, tired, and sometimes late. What if for the cost of your morning coffee pick-me-up, you could stop being dragged down by your commute?
A congestion charge would improve mobility in downtown DC, but rather than funding local roads, the money should pay for regional improvements that aid commuters from Virginia, Maryland, and outer DC neighborhoods.
The Washington area ranked second most congested in the Texas Transportation Institute's 2009 Annual Urban Mobility Report. Washingtonians on average spend 62 hours stuck in traffic during the year and waste 42 gallons of gas. We all could find a better use for this wasted time and money, like spending more time with family and friends.
More frequent transit service or new bike lanes can only incrementally improve commutes, and even projects that increase automobile traffic flow never seem to end the congestion. Such projects may even add to traffic congestion in the long run.
A congestion charge would create a cordon around downtown DC and charge motorists to enter during weekdays. As drivers pass through the boundary, cameras would collect license plate numbers and charge drivers online, through a monthly pass, or at any multispace parking meter. There wouldn't be any tollbooths.
The charge would be enough to encourage some motorists to carpool, some to take transit or commuter buses, some to telework, some to shift to other times, and some to not make the trip unless it was necessary. With fewer automobile trips into downtown DC, traffic would lighten and the remaining drivers could get to their offices or other destinations more quickly.
This worked well in London, which implemented a congestion charge in 2003. London charges $12 (£8) for drivers to enter central London on weekdays between 7 am and 6:30 pm. They have until 10 pm of the day they crossed the boundary to pay the fee, or else it increases with time.
The charge has been successful. 21% fewer automobiles enter central London (70,000 fewer each day). Bus ridership increased 6%, and the system raised $206,000,000 (£137,000,000) in fiscal year 2008 for transportation improvements.
In the past, the District had proposed that the money collected from this charge would go towards improving DC's streets and transit. However, we are a region of 5 million people, and need to function more like one in solving our transportation woes. Just like with the natural environment where everything in the ecosystem is connected and works together, the same is true with transportation. Jurisdictions throughout the Washington metropolitan area are connected in a transportation ecosystem.
Rather than having DC keep all of the revenues generated by such a plan, the revenues should be shared regionally and be required to fund weekday downtown-bound commuter transit services, services which provide alternatives for the very commuters who would otherwise pay the charge.
The revenue could pay for dedicated bus lanes, to provide guaranteed funding for our world-class Metro service, or improve transportation demand management and telework options. And perhaps the potential for funds benefiting their constituents could make this concept palatable to regional state and federal elected officials who would have to support such a plan.
If regional Congressional and state representatives supported the idea, it could conceivably still happen despite obstructionism in Richmond: Congress lets DC impose charges within its own borders, and DC agrees to dedicate the funding to a regional authority that includes representation from Virginia and Maryland. Could it really work?
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