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Congestion Pricing — A Primer: Overview

The Primer Series and the Purpose of This Volume

States and local jurisdictions are increasingly discussing congestion pricing as a strategy for improving transportation system performance. In fact, many transportation economists and national transportation experts believe that congestion pricing offers promising opportunities to cost-effectively reduce traffic congestion, improve the reliability of highway system performance, and improve the quality of life for residents, many of whom are experiencing intolerable traffic congestion in regions across the country.

Because congestion pricing is still a relatively new concept in the United States, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is embarking on an outreach effort to introduce the various aspects of congestion pricing to decision-makers and transportation professionals. One element of FHWA's congestion-pricing outreach program is this Congestion Pricing Primer Series. The aim of the primer series is not to promote congestion pricing or to provide an exhaustive discussion of the various technical and institutional issues one might encounter when implementing a particular project; rather, the intent is to provide an overview of the key elements of congestion pricing, to illustrate the multidisciplinary aspects and skill sets required to analyze and implement congestion pricing, and to provide an entry point for practitioners and others interested in engaging in the congestion-pricing dialogue.

The concept of tolling and congestion pricing is based on charging for access and use of our roadway network. It places responsibility for travel choices squarely in the hands of the individual traveler, where it can best be decided and managed. The car is often the most convenient means of transportation; however, with a little encouragement, people may find it attractive to change their travel habits, whether through consolidation of trips, car-sharing, by using public transportation, or by simply traveling at less-congested times. The use of proven and practical demand-management pricing, which we freely use and apply to every other utility, is needed for transportation. Through usage and access fees, on local, regional, and national levels, we can build a fund that supports a sustainable transportation system, while decreasing congestion and improving the environment.

The application of tolling and road pricing to solve local transportation and sustainability problems provides the opportunity to solve transportation problems without federal or state funding. The size of the revenue stream that could be apportioned to where the revenue was generated would mean that a city or region could address its road and public transportation projects with confidence and determination. It could also mean that further gas tax, sales tax, or motor-vehicle registration fee increases are not necessary now or in the future. The idea of congestion pricing is a conceptual first step, not a complete plan of action. It has to be coordinated with other policy measures and environmental measures for sustainability.

Against this background, this Overview primer was produced to explain the concept of congestion pricing and its benefits, to present examples of congestion-pricing approaches implemented in the United States and abroad, and to briefly discuss federal-aid policy and programs related to tolling and pricing.

About This Primer Series

The Congestion Pricing Primer Series is part of FHWA's outreach efforts to introduce the various aspects of congestion pricing to decision-makers and transportation professionals in the United States. The primers are intended to lay out the underlying rationale for congestion pricing and some of the technical issues associated with its implementation in a manner that is accessible to non-specialists in the field. Titles in this series include:

  • Congestion Pricing Overview.
  • Non-Toll Pricing.
  • Technologies That Enable Congestion Pricing.
  • Technologies That Complement Congestion Pricing.
  • Transit and Congestion Pricing.
  • Economics: Pricing, Demand, and Economic Efficiency.
  • Income-Based Equity Impacts of Congestion Pricing.