What about credit-based congestion pricing in Austin?

I recently talked to a couple transportation experts at UT about what the city could do to really reduce congestion. Both of them suggested the real game-changer would be congestion-based pricing.

Engineering Prof. Kara Kockelman, is a big proponent of credit-based congestion pricing. The idea is not only would tolls throughout the city charge drivers based on the congestion, but everybody would get a certain amount of transportation credits to use. So everybody would get, say, $30 a month that could be used to either pay the tolls or purchase transit. Once you’ve exhausted your credits, of course, the tolls would come out of your own pocket.

Dynamic pricing already exists on a lot of major roads, including the MoPac express lane here. But there are very few examples of congestion-based pricing across entire cities or regions. New York City’s plan to charge vehicles for driving in the most congested parts of Manhattan is a step in that direction, but I don’t believe the pricing will change based on traffic conditions.

What definitely has never been put in place is the credits model that Kockelman discussed. That’s a pretty radical idea that would face major political barriers. As Kockelman herself noted, one of the challenges comes from the overlapping political jurisdictions involved in a regional transportation system. Who gets access to the credits? Just Austinites? What about commuters from outside of town?

Anyway, interesting idea.

3 thoughts on “What about credit-based congestion pricing in Austin?

  1. This is an interesting idea. You always hear about these economic solutions to congestion, but I have to wonder if the disincentives to drive would really be enough to overcome the volume of drivers. I’m sure there is research on this that I’m too lazy to consult, but even with the credit-based system, I can imagine traffic backing up at the tolls as people slowly move through, or back up and turn around. The thing I find most troubling about dynamic pricing schemes, though, is the disproportionate effect on the poor. Imagine the hotel staff who work in the middle of downtown, etc. The same forces are inherent to credit-based pricing, since once you exhaust your credits you are back to paying out of pocket—often for the use of public roads. I also wonder if/how a system like this would involve residents who don’t have a vehicle or use public transportation. Do you have to have a vehicle registered in Travis County to receive credits? Would you be able to convert your credits to something else? Transfer them to another person?

    Oh by the way, I can help you install that cat door this weekend.

    1. I was pretty sure it was you, DD, but I’m glad that you added the last sentence so that I’d be sure to know. I didn’t emphasize the point, but the idea would be that the credits could be used for any transportation, including public transit. The problem is that a car-based transportation system is inherently regressive, since it forces people to purchase and maintain a very expensive machine. A credit-based system would allow you to make it a little more progressive, such as by providing additional credits to those with low-incomes.

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