Housing Complex

How to Talk About Making Driving More Expensive: Council of Governments Broaches the Subject, Delicately

In the United States, the mere mention of charging people more for their driving habits draws apoplectic responses. Highway tolls are a way of life, but anything more? Ridiculous! Even a proposal to bill cars for entering Manhattan—which has worked in London to great effect—never got off the ground.

In the Washington area, though, traffic has gotten bad enough and budgets strained enough that policymakers might be open to the idea of building costs into commuter behavior, which eggheads have already determined could be one of the only ways to reduce congestion and finance transportation improvements without hurting the economy. With that in mind, a couple years ago, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments decided to commission some research into what might work and how to win over a skeptical public. 

Today, the COG transit team (whom you can read all about in the Washingtonian) will finish the last of five sessions in each part of the region with a total of about 300 people selected for demographic diversity. In the focus groups, participants are presented with three scenarios: A highway toll network, a "vehicle miles traveled" taxation scheme that would require placing a GPS transponder on each vehicle, and a zone system akin to London's.

In the suburban sessions that have happened so far—today's is for D.C., and could return very different results—the reactions haven't been positive.

"It's safe to say they're not enthusiastic about these pricing options," says John Swanson, principal transportation planner with COG, noting that the Big Brother-ish VMT idea has been particularly disliked. "Some of them, their opposition seems to be intractable."

But that was to be expected. What Swanson would really like to know is how opinions might change as different information is introduced—which is why COG went with America Speaks' interactive focus group model, rather than a simple phone survey. "The main hypothesis is that as people have a chance to learn about interesting problems, and options for change, and talk to each other, their opinions can evolve over the course of four hours," Swanson says. "That's really what we're looking at."

One interesting outcome: The more they talk about congestion pricing schemes, the more open they become to the idea of a gas tax, which seems like a simple and fair way to increase the cost of driving. After today, Swanson will digest the mountain of data into a final report on what he heard.

Of course, COG has a long way to go before suburban jurisdictions stop choking on the whole concept, and they're conducting the research with no eye to the question of political feasibility—in the hopes that the right kind of pitch to a better-informed populace might eventually do the trick.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • damn right

    if they do that tourism would flop
    DC will suffer hotels would close and rural areas would spring up like water from a well
    it would be death to dc

  • Rsn

    @damn right

    Right, because charging a $6 toll has been the death knell of tourism in NYC.

    DC will still be attractive tourists as the vast majority of cultural site are free. It would be more interesting to see what effect the proposals would have on businesses.

  • Jes sayin’

    The Council of Governments doesn't run a damn thing, and both Congress and Virginia would seem to have veto power over any brilliant scheme brought forth by these pointy headed intellectuals.

    Gas taxes will go up because they have to. Tolls will go up on toll roads because they have to. States and localities need that money to keep roads in repair.

    But anybody who thinks Bob McDonnell or the GOP House will allow Big Brother to put a GPS in your car - or charge you for exercising your God-given Right to enter the Nation's Capitol during rush hour is simply delusional. If God didn't want you to enter DC via car during rush hour, He wouldn't have built those bridges and invented cars for us.

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  • Dubious

    If they are serious, explain why under the current system, it is more expensive for me to park at a Metro lot, take the train into DC and return, than it is to drive. These guys look at a narrow view of an issue and think it represents the whole, only concerned with their patch of the universe.

  • Bob

    Instead of constantly looking for ways to increase taxes, how about taking the novel approach of CUTTING SPENDING.

  • washcycle

    Dubious, is it more expensive? Are you counting driving at 55 cents per mile? Do you have free parking? Who pays for that? Are you counting the increase in pollution, the quality of time spent, loss of safety etc...?

    Bob, Cutting spending means no more new roads and no more maintenance of existing roads. I don't see how that solves the problem.

  • http://arideaday.blogspot.com jeff

    I agree w/ washcycle.

    You're not considering what I'm paying for by you driving into DC. There will be increased pollution, and and increased chance of you getting in an accident with a pedestrian, cyclist, or driver. Park 'n' riding the metro is going to mean less chance of accidents (whether w/ pedestrians, cyclists, or other cars). The fact that it's cheaper to drive all the way IS f'ed up. Parking in downtown dc should be WAY more expensive to incentivize taking the metro. And the increase in parking rates should subsidize public transit and non-auto infrastructure.

  • Hillman

    It has worked well in London.

    But we aren't London.

    London is by and large far easier to get around in without a car.

    In large part because of their terrific taxi system.

    Which we don't have. Our taxis are unreliable, filthy, often won't go to entire portions of the city, etc.

    Beyond that, we have a lot more crime than London. Suggesting we can all walk through our neighborhoods to get public transit and the like isn't realistic.

    Until we get better taxis and fix our crime, we won't be able to pull off a London type system.