Paying for Free Roads


The peak toll in the first month of operation on State Route 167 in Washington was $5.75. I know, I know, you would never pay such an exorbitant amount when America has taught you that free roads are your birthright. But that money bought Washington drivers a 27-minute time savings. Is a half hour of your time worth $6?

Eric A. Morris in a two-part essay at Freakonomics weighs in favor of toll roads that vary in response to traffic levels as a way out of congestion and posits that this way, we may even love paying for roads that we generally consider free to us.

One thought on “Paying for Free Roads

  1. Congestion pricing is one of those areas that make perfect sense in an economic model but founder on the shoals of real politics. Here’s an example in Houston. A toll road was built out to the far western part of Harris County. The West Park toll road serves a very real need, as the other two freeways that go west diverge from each other the farther from the center of Houston you get. Therefore, there was a vast swathe of suburban development, some pretty old (in Houston terms) and some brand new, that wasn’t really being served by a high-speed road. The farm roads in the past had been adequate, but as the area developed, more lights went in and speed limits dropped.

    The West park toll road was an instant success–so much so that there started to be big traffic jams on it. The county toll authority decided to try congestion pricing to control this. But it didn’t work for two reasons. First, people have to drive to and from work at normal times, and if there is no alternative road, they will be forced to take the toll road at the most expensive times–without seeing a significant drop in traffic. Second, people who used West Park thought congestion pricing was just a bait-and-switch–they had moved out to western Harris County with the expectation of using a “normal” priced toll road, and now the County was going to pick their pockets for more money. It made people so angry that the country backed down on the congestion pricing.

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