End Road Space Shortages With Prices

If there’s one thing everyone in America knows, it’s that price controls don’t work. If you just say “gasoline can’t be sold for more than $2 a gallon” the result is going to be shortages. But if there’s another thing everyone in America knows, it’s that there should be lots of free roads everywhere. And if there’s a third thing everyone in America knows, it’s that traffic jams are annoying. And if there’s a fourth thing everyone in America knows, it’s that raising taxes would be terrible.

There’s kind of a tension here. One that hopefully some day will be resolved:

“Congestion is a major threat to the economic vitality of the region and the quality of life its residents enjoy,” says a report outlining the toll road plan developed by the planning board and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The plan would create a 1,650-mile network of “variably priced” lanes on the Capital Beltway, Interstates 295, 395 and 66, the George Washington Parkway and other thoroughfares.

If the plan goes forward, drivers using interstates and highways anywhere around Washington would have to pay, with rates varying depending on the location and time of day. The plan does not suggest actual toll rates.

I almost hesitate to write about this stuff, because I separately adhere to the opinion that this country needs less car-oriented infrastructure and more walkable urbanism. Consequently, I worry that writing about congestion pricing will be seen in that frame. It shouldn’t be. I don’t drive on a regular basis and don’t particularly care if I-66 is jammed up. I want as much economic vitality in the region as possible, and I want our local governments to have adequate revenue, but at the end of the day this is a problem for other people. I live downtown and my feet and my bike can take me to 95 percent of the places I go.

Still the fact of the matter is that if you build a useful road somewhere, people will say “taking up space on this road has value to me.” And if you make the price of that valuable commodity $0.00 then people will overconsume it and there will be a shortage. And the way automobile traffic works is that when a road gets overcrowded, motion on it slows to a crawl. Remove just a fraction of the cars by inducing more car pooling, more mass transit, and more time-shifting of trips to non-peak times and everything will flow more smoothly.