Objections to transport infrastructure can take many forms. The far right is wont to view mass transit as a communist plot, a tool to horde all of us into Agenda 21 housing blocks. The far left is inclined to see highways as a sop to the oil industry and automakers, with additional lanes as a cause of traffic congestion. At the root of these objections lies a core difference in failure modes between trains and cars.
At low usage, both cars and trains are fast and comfortable. I’m in my car, seat reclined a bit, radio on, cruising. Or I’m on a mostly empty subway car, sprawled out across the mustard yellow naughahyde, listening to the whine of the tunnel.
As usage increases, cars and highways fail in terms of speed. If I’m driving an Audi and encounter a traffic jam, I’m still in an Audi. I’ve still got leather seats and a good CD. I’m just not going anywhere.
On the other hand, as usage increases trains fail in terms of comfort. A train at crush load will see slightly longer dwell times, but even in Tokyo the train is still going to do 80 or 110 or 130km/h once it departs the station.
So how should we price failure modes? Consider how people react to differentially-priced comfort versus differentially-priced speed. One way to look at comfort is airlines. And if you look at airlines which provide slightly more comfort at a slightly higher price they’re doing horribly.
But if you look at speed, you’ll see that people value it immensely. Punching in a random Amtrak trip, I get this timetable:
Leaving Baltimore at 6:30pm, options include an Acela for $191 and 2:15 of travel time, or a Northeast Regional for $125 and 2:40. Regionals are extremely comfortable – wide, cushy seats, lots of legroom – so that $66 differential is primarily speed. For a travel time difference of 25 minutes, that works out to a time value of $158 an hour. For an arrival time difference of 45 minutes, it’s $88 an hour. Either way, it’s a lot of money.
Moreover, a seat on the 9:28 can be had for a mere $49. Since the 7:54 is the same exact train for $125, the $76 price differential is entirely time-related. Understandable: If you get into New York at 10:30pm, you can make it to most of the clubs before they start hopping. If it’s after midnight, not so much. That $76 to arrive in New York 96 minutes earlier equates to a time value of $47.50 per hour.
Similar evidence comes from highways. TTI did a report fairly recently where they looked at people who pay to use managed lanes even when the adjacent lanes are at free-flow. When they sent drivers a survey asking why, they found that, among other things, managed lane users were hedging against the mere possibility of downstream congestion in the general-purpose lanes.
Anecdotally, you also have the Hardy Airport Connector which charges a full dollar for you to avoid two or three traffic lights. That’s about 40 cents a light. If that average light delays you by one minute, that’s about $24 an hour. Farther north you have the Addison Airport Toll Tunnel which costs 50 cents to avoid a detour of slightly more than one-half mile.
All of this tends to suggest that new urban road projects should be tolled and variably-priced.
When the Katy Freeway expansion was in full swing, a lot of people diverted to the Westpark, and that road saw stop-and-go congestion each way. During that time period HCTRA considered doubling the toll but backed off after there was a large public backlash from people who had bought homes assuming tolls would remain relatively static. Adopting variable pricing from the get-go could remove the expectation that rates will stay relatively constant.
The most obvious place to do this would be whenever the gap is closed on the Fort Bend Parkway between Alt 90 and the Post Oak/Loop “Y.” Other new highways such as the “Lone Star Parkway” (roughly parallel to FM 529 from the Grand Parkway west) would also be good candidates.