Would ‘managed lanes’ make rush hours more manageable?
It is almost too easy to make fun of the state’s 157-page report on traffic congestion.
Some key findings: “The worst congestion in the Commonwealth occurs in Greater Boston.” “Congestion is bad because the economy is good.” “We should be worried about congestion on local roads, too.”
File under “Duh.”
But my favorite insight was this one: “People in Massachusetts don’t need this study to confirm what they experience every day: Congestion has gone from bad to worse, from occasional inconvenience and frustration to a constant and daily reality.”
Yet Governor Charlie Baker still commissioned a study. At least his administration is self-aware that it discovered the obvious.
The data-heavy report allows us to rank the worst trouble spots, but of course we already knew that I-93 into Boston at 7 a.m. is bad, really bad.
Most of the recommendations have already been embraced by the Commonwealth, including reinventing bus transit, increasing MBTA capacity and ridership, and producing more affordable housing near transit.
So is there anything new that commuters can get excited about?
Well, yes, the fact the governor hasn’t slammed the door and thrown away the key on some form of congestion pricing. He ordered up this study after rejecting a congestion pricing pilot proposed by the Legislature last year.
On Thursday, we learned there are certain kinds of congestion pricing he likes, others he objects to. Baker prefers something called “managed lanes.” It’s another way of easing gridlock by giving drivers the option to pay a fee to avoid traffic. They’re also known as “Lexus lanes,” but I doubt you will hear the governor calling them that.
Baker doesn’t like the kind of congestion pricing that charges all drivers a fee during rush hour, a policy he believes is unfair to those on fixed incomes or inflexible schedules. That’s what London does.
What would managed lanes look like here? Take the so-called zipper, or HOV, lane on the Southeast Expressway from Braintree to Dorchester. During rush hours, only buses and passenger vehicles with at least two occupants can use it. Under a managed lane system, a solo driver could pay a one-way fee of $2 to $3 to use the zipper lane, while carpools and buses travel for free.
Baker backs this approach because he doesn’t want to force fees on drivers and a create a system that is inequitable. If the state only rolls out managed lanes on existing HOV routes, the impact would probably be modest. But if we added them to all clogged highways (where it’s physically possible), commuters might see some real relief.
Would the administration consider expanding highways to make room for managed lanes? Pigs would fly before that happens. Building more roads would encourage more driving, contradicting Baker’s push to fight climate change by reducing car emissions.
The other pricing scheme that sounds tantalizing is a congestion price surcharge on Uber and Lyft rides during rush hours. Studies have indicated that ridesharing has increased traffic snarls, but remains a tiny fraction of all trips. Currently, the state collects a fee per ride share, but discussions are underway to raise those charges.
Andrew Salzberg, head of transportation policy for Uber, wrote in a Globe op-ed piece in November that the company supports congestion pricing.
“It’s not a simple solution, and it’s not one that we can get done on our own. But we believe that all vehicles should pay to use the roads — personal vehicles, delivery trucks, taxis, and — yes — Uber,” he wrote.
Would Uber get behind a congestion pricing plan that just hits rideshare companies? Not so fast.
“We support Governor Baker’s goal of reducing congestion in the Commonwealth and look forward to working with him and doing our part,” Uber spokeswoman Alix Anfang said in a statement. “To have real impact, any additional fees should target all vehicles at the most congested areas and times so that people who have limited access to mass transit aren’t punished.”
Representative Bill Straus, House chairman on the Joint Committee on Transportation, tells me he likes managed lanes and would tell his colleagues this: “That’s a model everyone should like: Let the other guy pay. . . . If somebody wants to pay extra and you’re getting the benefit, why would you complain?”
Enough complaining. Yes, we’ve definitely reached a tipping point on congestion. Let’s act — and quickly.