By Jim Stergios & Conrad Crawford
Published in The Boston Globe on December 6, 2019
Earlier this year, INRIX, a mobility analytics firm, announced that Greater Boston now has the nation’s worst rush hour traffic. Tell us something we don’t know.
It’s been years since the informal New England salutation of choice was to commiserate about the weather. Standing in line waiting for a coffee, and the subject on everyone’s lips is the time it takes to get in and around Boston. Greater Boston stands out in another way: It is the only one of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the country that does not use time-of-day pricing on its toll roads.
The Globe’s Shirley Leung has reported that MassDOT wants to conduct a test of managed lanes in 2020. We think we have a way to do it. Interstate 93 north of Boston, known as the Northern Expressway, offers an opportunity to change that and determine whether roadway pricing could get traffic moving. It could also bring environmental benefits to Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford — the cities that bear the brunt of the impacts of tailpipe exhausts, something compounded by engines idling in traffic.
Until recently, the Northern Expressway included a 2.6-mile, high-occupancy vehicle lane on the southbound side. Between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. each weekday, the lane was limited to vehicles carrying at least two people.
During these hours, the HOV lane moved about 50 percent more people than each of the roadway’s general purpose lanes, and drivers took an average of three minutes to traverse the 2.6 miles, as opposed to 10 minutes for the general purpose lanes.
Dynamic road pricing applied to this lane could reduce congestion by making even more efficient use of the roadway. When regular lanes are congested, users of the priced lane would pay a fluctuating toll in exchange for guaranteed travel speeds of at least 45 miles per hour.
There are at least two ways in which dynamic pricing could be implemented on the Northern Expressway. One would be to change the HOV lane into a 24/7 high-occupancy toll lane. The other would be to operate it as such at all hours except 6:00 a.m. through 10:00 a.m., when it would operate strictly as an HOV lane.
Toll revenue would pay back capital costs related to the transition to a HOT lane in about two years. Payback on the second option would take longer, since tolls wouldn’t be collected during peak morning hours. The point of the project isn’t, however, about raising revenue: It is an opportunity to test out dynamic pricing as an approach that will get traffic moving.
In addition to reducing congestion and the economic benefits associated with people and goods being able to get where they’re going without undue delay, either implementation approach would bring Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford much-needed relief from tailpipe emissions, which increase the risks of cancer, asthma, heart disease, and pre-term births — and are a major contributor to climate change.
HOT lane revenue could be used to fund public transportation and other mobility and quality-of-life improvements in those cities.
Calls for roadway pricing have grown louder in the wake of the INRIX findings about area traffic and Gov. Baker’s expressions of support for the idea of managed lanes. Dynamic pricing on the Northern Expressway’s HOV lane is an opportunity to determine whether this approach will work, at least on a limited level, in the Boston area.
We cannot build our way out of our traffic mess. Rather than resigning ourselves to the stress and wasted time that comes with rush hour congestion, let’s use Interstate 93 north of Boston as a prudent test case. Time-of-day pricing has been effective in other major US metropolitan areas. This pilot will give us a chance to get it right here, too,and hopefully return our regional small-talk to New England’s weather.
Conrad Crawford is a member of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority. Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Conrad’s proposal was a runner-up in the Institute’s 2019 Better Government Competition.