Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tolls for Thee

On Monday, Edward L. Glaeser, economics professor at Harvard and director of the the Kennedy School's Rappaport Institute, wrote a Boston Globe op/ed detailing some of the reasons why tolls should not be removed on the Mass. Turnpike. I agree with almost everything in the piece, but I particularly wanted to highlight two ideas Glaeser had for making those tolls work better:

First, we should acknowledge that, because congestion changes from hour to hour, the social cost of driving varies over the day. Time-sensitive tolls can help move drivers from commuting during peak hours to less congested periods. We could double tolls during peak hours and cut them to zero during off-peak hours. Alternatively, the toll could rise slowly from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and then decline as traffic eases off. Since trucks use up the most space, tolls should rise particularly steeply for trucks driving during rush hour.

Second, we should recognize that the administrative costs for cash payments are about three times higher than the same costs for payments made with fast lane devices. Since people who use fast lanes save the system money, their tolls should be reduced. Tolls on those who pay cash should be substantially increased, perhaps even doubled. Already, some tolls are lower for fast lane users, but this effort needs to be expanded. Alternatively, higher tolls on cash-paying drivers can be used to make transponders free.
This is exactly right, I think. The Turnpike Authority should be pushing those fast lane transponders on the public. In my opinion, they've been very slow to move away from toll collectors to electronic payments, and they've really offered very little by way of incentive for drivers to switch. Increasing the use of the transponders would make Glaeser's first point easier to implement. The computerized payment system would allow us to do creative things with the tolls, such as separate peak and off-peak tolls, or discount programs for commuters.

It only makes sense -- roads should be paid for in part if not in total by the people who drive on them. Tolls are the way to accomplish this, and there are ways we should be using them to make them more efficient and more fair.