Effective Approaches for Advancing Congestion Pricing in a Metropolitan Region
For decades, transportation agencies have directed their planning efforts at meeting regional goals of mobility, accessibility, and economic vitality. As metropolitan planning organizations (MPO), and their planning partners at State Departments of Transportation (DOT), transit agencies, and local governments work together to develop metropolitan transportation plans, many agencies are looking for innovative approaches to advance these regional goals, while functioning in economically constrained times.
Congestion pricing approaches – including various forms of road pricing, parking pricing, and mileage-based user fees – offer potential benefits to communities from an economic, environmental, and social perspective. However, these strategies face significant political challenges in gaining acceptance as a viable option in regional planning. While some success has been achieved on individual pricing projects, such as conversion of high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and demonstration projects funded by Federal grants such as the Value Pricing Pilot Program, many of these efforts have been focused on individual projects, and there has been limited consideration of the broader role that congestion pricing can play in a regional context.
To advance congestion pricing at a regional scale, transportation planners, decisionmakers, and the public need a better understanding of the role of congestion pricing in addressing regional goals and transportation funding needs. They also can benefit from lessons learned from regions that have begun to study and plan for congestion pricing as part of their metropolitan transportation plans.
Purpose of the Primer and Intended Audience
As part of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Congestion Pricing Primer series, this primer is intended to raise awareness among staff at MPOs and their partner agencies about the potential role of congestion pricing in supporting regional goals as well as the most effective approaches for advancing congestion pricing strategies in a region. It draws upon lessons learned from pilot and ongoing programs implemented around the United States as well as efforts to integrate congestion pricing into regional transportation plans. Using illustrative case studies, this primer provides detailed information on how congestion pricing can support various regional planning goals and effective approaches for addressing the challenges of advancing congestion pricing in a regional context.
Based on the common agenda of the four congestion pricing workshops, this primer includes the following key themes around which the discussion and examples are centered.
The discussion of these themes draws directly from practitioner experiences and effective strategies that were employed in planning and implementing congestion pricing programs. This primer is designed for transportation planners at the State, regional, and local levels as well as for key stakeholders in the planning process, such as transit agency officials and decisionmakers involved in regional transportation planning and policy making. It is also meant to support the broader audience of stakeholders involved in all aspects of transportation and community decisionmaking, from elected officials and interested citizens to practitioners in related fields such as the environment and land use.
Process of Developing the PrimerAs part of the Congestion Pricing Primer series, FHWA's Office of Operations published "Congestion Pricing – A Primer: Metropolitan Planning Organization Case Studies" in 2011. Pricing programs have often come about separate from the traditional metropolitan planning process through pilot projects and demonstrations. Given that the federally funded pricing demonstration projects have shown congestion pricing to be an effective tool in addressing regional goals, there is a growing interest in incorporating such programs into metropolitan transportation plans.
The case studies examine how congestion pricing was incorporated into metropolitan transportation plans in four regions: Dallas/Fort Worth, the Puget Sound region, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and the San Francisco Bay area. The progression of congestion pricing through the planning process follows a unique path in each of these regions, based on each region's own history of attitudes towards pricing, jurisdictional relationships, and politics that influence how pricing is perceived. The case studies thus offer valuable lessons to support other MPOs seeking to do the same.
This primer builds on those four case studies, drawing on discussions from a series of four peer-to-peer practitioner workshops organized by FHWA. These one-day workshops were held in September 2011 in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, and Washington, DC and involved presentations and discussions about challenges and opportunities for advancing congestion pricing in a regional context. The objective of the workshops was to provide technical assistance to help transportation practitioners understand the technical, institutional, political, and public involvement issues associated with planning and implementing congestion pricing strategies to advance regional goals. Participants at the workshops included MPO planners, Federal and State DOT staff, and representatives from transit agencies, tolling authorities, and consulting firms. The content of this primer has been developed primarily from the discussions that took place at these workshops.
The focus of the workshops was on the role of congestion pricing in supporting funding and regional goals and how to integrate pricing into metropolitan transportation plans. The workshops included sessions on lessons learned from experience with congestion pricing and metropolitan planning and included presentations and panel discussions by practitioners from different regions of the country who have implemented, planned, or conducted studies for congestion pricing programs. Through these sessions, workshop participants shared their perspectives and presenters provided insights from their experiences. This information forms the basis for this document and has been supplemented by a literature review, case studies of congestion pricing programs, and the results of the research on the impacts of these programs.
Types of Congestion Pricing Strategies to Consider in Regional PlanningThere are a variety of ways to use price signals to reduce congestion in the transportation network. This primer defines five types of congestion pricing strategies, each of which works slightly differently, and a number of which can be used in combination. For a pricing strategy to be considered congestion pricing, it must vary by time of day or level of congestion or reward the use of higher occupancy vehicles so as to impact traffic flow directly. Some forms of congestion pricing only charge on individual lanes or segments of the system, providing an option for faster travel time for those willing to pay.
Variably Priced Lanes
Variably priced lanes are separated lanes on a roadway that involve variable tolls. The amount paid depends on the level of congestion in the area or the time of day (this is usually linked to expected levels of congestion), and may also vary based on the number of occupants in the vehicle.
The two main types of priced lanes are express toll lanes and high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. Express toll lanes involve tolls that are set at a level to maintain a target speed or level of traffic flow. HOT lanes also consider the number of occupants in the vehicle, reducing or eliminating tolls for carpools, vanpools, or transit vehicles using the lane. Vehicles that do not meet the occupancy requirement may choose to use HOT lanes, but will have to pay a toll.
Lanes that were previously high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes can be converted to HOT lanes to allow vehicles not meeting the occupancy requirements to take advantage of the reduced travel time if they are willing to pay a higher toll. Transportation agencies can also choose to add express toll lanes or HOT lanes to existing highways.
Variably Priced Highways, Bridges, or Tunnels
In this approach, rather than pricing one lane of a general use highway, the entire highway, bridge, or tunnel facility is priced with variable tolls. Some portions of the facility might have minimal or no tolls at off-peak times, with these tolls increasing significantly at peak periods.
At present, no free roads within the United States have been fully converted to priced highways with all lanes tolled. However, new toll roads with variable pricing have been constructed (e.g., the Intercounty Connector in Maryland) and some bridges (e.g., bridges connecting New York City and New Jersey) have introduced variable pricing to help smooth the flow of traffic, allowing the road to move more vehicles per hour than it would under congested conditions. Under U.S. DOT's Urban Partnership Agreement program, regional partners in the Seattle area – the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and King County – have introduced new tolls on State Route 520, setting toll rates on the facility based on demand.
A priced zone levies a charge on vehicles entering or driving within a particular area – usually a central business district (CBD). This can be used to reduce traffic within a CBD by shifting trips to other modes or encouraging carpooling. There are two main ways to design a priced zone:
Although cordon and areawide pricing approaches do not currently exist in any U.S. city, they have been proposed in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and have been implemented in cities internationally.
Priced Road Networks
Pricing a road network can mean applying any of the strategies described above to a network of roadways, which may include freeways and arterials. This allows for the road network to be variably priced throughout the day, leading to a systemwide improvement in performance.
Pricing a network of roadways minimizes diversion effects (e.g., increased traffic on arterials from travelers trying to avoid tolls on the freeways can be prevented by setting charges on both to achieve optimal traffic flow). By pricing a larger number of facilities, a greater number of people are encouraged to change their travel behaviors.
The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the MPO for the Seattle region, studied the implications of a fully priced regional road network, and its long-range metropolitan transportation plan calls for full highway system tolling by approximately 2030.
Pricing not Involving Tolls (e.g., Variable Parking Pricing, Vehicle Miles Traveled Fees)Transportation facilities can be priced using other methods besides tolls to manage congestion and increase incentives to shift the time of travel or mode used. Parking pricing can be implemented so that parking in congested areas at peak times is more costly, which increases the incentive to take alternative forms of transportation and frees up parking spots for those who are willing to pay, thereby reducing time (and driving) required to find a spot. Rates can also change based on length of time (e.g., charging by the minute or quarter hour, or increasing rates after the first hour) to encourage people to stay for shorter periods. For instance, SFPark in San Francisco is a program that aims to reduce congestion from cruising for parking by providing users with real-time information about parking availability both through a website as well as through smartphone applications and adjusting parking prices based on demand. Pricing based on vehicle miles traveled (or VMT-based fees) can involve a fee levied on a per-mile basis that can vary by location, time or day, or congestion levels. For instance, the State of Oregon has studied the application of mileage-based fees through a pilot project and tested technologies that allow higher rates within a designated congestion zone or when driving during peak-periods.1
Organization of the Primer
This section described the common types of congestion pricing strategies that may be considered at the regional level along with examples of each, where available. Section 2 describes how each of the above types of congestion pricing strategies can be applied to support and advance planning goals in a region.
Following that, Section 3 addresses the important challenges related to planning and implementing congestion pricing and discusses public and decisionmaker acceptability, achieving regional collaboration, analytical limitations, legislative barriers, as well as a variety of other challenges discussed at the four workshops.
Section 4 provides potential solutions to these challenges using case examples from regions that have implemented them, with a focus on effective approaches for integrating congestion pricing into metropolitan transportation plans.
Section 5 provides insights on steps for getting started with advancing congestion pricing in regional plans and programs, which may be helpful for regions that want to get started in considering congestion pricing in a regional context.
The Resources section lists useful Federal, State, and local technical studies and guidance documents for further reference.
United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration