Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Fall of Measure A, and Roadway Congestion Pricing.

In the wake of the defeat of Sonoma County's Measure A yesterday, I started thinking about what other alternatives are available to mitigate Sonoma County's roadway issues.  As many of the readers of this blog are aware, Measure A was a quarter-cent sales tax in Sonoma County intended to fund pavement improvements.  The stories in the press before the election focused on the low quality of Sonoma County's roads, and indeed there's ample evidence of the problem. Sonoma County is generally considered to have the worst Pavement Condition Index of any county in the San Francisco Bay Area. That's saying something, as the region isn't known for the quality of its roadways.

However, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors' proposed solution, a sales tax, always seemed strange to me from a policy standpoint. Sales taxes are regressive, and aren't closely tied to the use of the roadways. Gas taxes have historically been used to fund maintenance (let alone improvement) because the use of the roads was (loosely) tied to the amount of tax paid. Of course, that system in the United States has been failing for decades. Improved fuel economy has delinked miles travelled from the amount of tax paid. But there's also another problem with fuel taxes. 

That problem turns on the primary complaint of voters when it comes to matters such as these.  It isn't actually the quality of the roadways. Instead, it's typically roadway congestion. For, as no less an authority than Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert has noted, "[d]riving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day."  So, while charging users for miles driven isn't a bad solution, charging them for driving those miles at the most congested times in the highest traffic areas is generally best. It provides revenue to improve the roads not based on the damage done to the road, but instead on the inconvenience imposed on all the other voters for inefficient timing of one's travel of the right-of-way. 

I concede, without argument, that, for the moment, for Sonoma County, trying to introduce a comprehensive system of congestion charges is asking too much. While Sonoma Valley's per-square-foot real estate prices may be approaching those of London or Singapore, that doesn't means the voters are yet ready for Zurich or Stockholm style road pricing. But there is lower hanging fruit whose benefits could be substantial.

 Highway 37/121 Juncture
Heavy Traffic in dark black
Take, for instance, the junction of Highways 37 and 121 in the southeastern corner of Sonoma County. As many are aware, the traffic in the afternoon heading from Sonoma County into Solano County, where 37 shrinks from two lanes to one, produces epic traffic jams. The problem isn't inter-Sonoma County traffic– instead it's the commuters trying to reach Solano County. For residents of Sonoma Valley returning home from San Francisco, it's a regular annoyance. For a tourist destination like the City of Sonoma, it's a foot on their economic windpipe. The Press Democrat has reported on the problem before, and motorists have even started petitions asking for help with the situation.

The nasty congestion at 37 is a classic example of the overuse of a public good (a free highway). Since each driver need not pay any fee to use the roadway, commuters over-exploit Highway 37. Each motorist gets a small benefit from traveling the road, and many are motivated to maximize their use by traveling it every workday, becoming reliant on it. Yet the costs of their use are imposed on the residents of Sonoma County, whose use (and the use of their tourists) is less (often, much less) intense.  Pretty frequently, the problem snowballs around 3 PM, until the resource collapses, in the form of a traffic nightmare. 

The irony of all this is that the builders of the roadway were well aware of these kinds of problems.  Indeed, Highway 37 was originally built as the "Sears Point Toll Road," managed by the Golden Gate Ferry. The imposition of tolls is an obvious solution to the tragedy of the commons–frequent users pay a higher price.  But when the State of California purchased the roadway in 1938, the tolls were eliminated. 

Now, that was probably a decent idea during the Great Depression. Collecting tolls in that era was much more disruptive than billing the FasTrak equipped cars of today, and spending on roads to improve the general welfare was politically uncontroversial. But the technical problems of toll billing have long been resolved, as the improvement in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge heading into San Francisco since mandatory electronic toll collection began in March of 2013 illustrates. And the overall impact of congestion charges worldwide has been positive, from London to Singapore.
Toll Monitoring Station, Singapore. 
Photo Courtesy Michele Simoni

User fees imposed on Highway 37 from Sonoma to Vallejo (a step toll is preferred) would improve the ability of tourists to reach upvalley destinations in a timely fashion. Such a solution is consistent with the history of the roadway. It helps resolve the primary concern of the voters, congestion, while avoiding politically impractical roadway expansion.  It provides revenue to resolve the pressing policy problem, roadway maintenance. And it promotes efficient use of a public good. At a stroke, it uses technology to help resolve a series of different thorny problems. 

This kind of a solution isn't limited to the junction of 37 and 121. The politics of such a solution at  San Antonio Creek are somewhat different (the commuters causing congestion there are residents of the County, those at 37/121 generally are not).  But if the remedy proves practical at Sears Point, there are other locations where such congestion pricing would make a great deal of sense (for instance, upon entering Sonoma Valley ...).  

Before yesterday's vote, congestion pricing in Sonoma County was largely a mere gedankenexperiment.   But after the failure of Measure A, it's another matter entirely.  As Ernest Rutherford was fond of saying, "[w]e've got no money, so we've got to think." In that vein, I suggest it is going to have to be creativity, then, rather than higher taxes, that Sonoma County will have to rely upon to resolve its long term traffic problems.

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