By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

‘Variable tolling’: A new way of sticking it to drivers

The Boston Globe’s editorial page today endorses a terrible idea: tolls that rise or fall depending on the time of day and the amount of traffic congestion. The editorial describes “variable tolling” as “a technology that keeps traffic manageable by raising prices during busy periods, thus giving drivers an incentive to use the highway at other times.”

Well, I’m fortunate enough to be able to drive off-peak most of the time, so I would be able to take advantage of those low rates. But the vast majority of drivers do not have that luxury.

Far better to improve public transportation so that people have a positive incentive to get out of their cars. Sadly, the transit system gets worse and worse. The carrot is gone, and the stick grows longer.

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  1. Variable tolling is certainly not unknown in other areas of life, Airlines do it to utilize spare capacity. In a way the diamond lanes that require multiple riders per vehicle, save fuel, tolls, and reduces traffic & pollution, providing a win-win-win, without an out-of-pocket cost.

    Variable tolls are probably politically impossible and not a good idea .There’s no mention of ability to pay 3-4 times as much for peak time travel. It amounts to a heavy handed tax on the poor. They have the least ability to pay or to adjust work hours and days for a lower rate. Conversely those who can afford it will be most able to adjust their work schedules and pay less. Taxes have two primary purposes: collect revenue and/or encourage/discourage behavior. The Globe never mentioned the predictable obvious administrative problems and unintended consequences. What about pre-peak border-time traffic jams that impact peak time use? The Globe throws out an idea maybe worthy of consideration but without any mention of obvious caveats, The great and general court should have fully funded Governor Patrick’s transportation initiatives.

  2. Mike Benedict

    The problem we face with public transportation is that none of the proposed plans even begin to resolve the need for point to point transportation. A suburban commuter still needs a car to get to the train, few of which depart the outlying stations at reasonable frequencies to make them worth the effort.

    Patrick’s plan is more trains. OK, that’s nice to have, but before you add trains you have to figure out where the additional passengers might park. Right now, most of the North Shore lots are at capacity already, and the parking rates alone offset the tolls, making it that much easier for people to opt to drive. And you can’t ride a bus to the train station; the bus routes are far too limited to make a difference.

    Did I mention that we overpay already? In July, the Mass. houses overrode a Patrick veto, thus hitting taxpayers for [i]additional[/i] $800 million A YEAR, which doesn’t do much more than ensure the MBTA doesn’t have to raise fares, adds a few buses and oh, pays for DOT salary hikes to the tune of $250 million more per year. Oh, sorry, Bob DeLeo promises [i]he[/i] will make sure the funds aren’t wasted. (“I want to see what’s going on with the people’s money.”) Forgive the voters for being skeptical, but we saw what happened with the Big Dig.

    There is little reason for hope that the system will ever remotely pay for itself, meaning the taxpayers will continue to subsidize a system that is both out of date and inconvenient. Taxpayers are getting conned, Dan. And I say that as a liberal.

    Boston regional transit is designed to get people from one general area to another general area, not point to point. As such, cars remain the commuter’s best (and often, only) option.

  3. At least the way it works in the bay area, variable tolling makes sense. The Bay Bridge toll is $4 most of the time, but $6 during rush hour. Hardly 3-4x, but enough to push rush hour commuters towards taking the train, instead.
    And rush hour commuters are exactly the people who SHOULD be using public transit. Most of the pains of relying on public transit are due to frequency issues: there aren’t that many people who are trying to get from, say, Medford to Milford at 8 PM on a Saturday, so there aren’t many trains or buses running on those routes at those times, so public transit users have to waste a lot of time waiting around. But when there are lots of people going the same place at the same time, there are significant complementary benefits to public transit users, who can see reduced wait times. At the same time, off-peak car commuters don’t significantly contribute to congestion, the way rush hour commuters do.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @James: Please see the previous comments. We shouldn’t be pushing people into trains. We should be pulling people into trains by making it a better experience. Again, put down the stick and find a carrot or two.

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