As Beacon Hill prepares to revisit transportation issues early next year, lawmakers should listen to happiness researchers, who have found that morning commutes are the most miserable time of the day. We can’t build our way out of traffic congestion by laying down more highways. Our commutes will only become bearable if Massachusetts starts charging drivers for peak-hour travel — and that, in turn, could yield money to ease the state’s transportation financing woes.
The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that congestion costs our region $2.4 billion annually. As the Commonwealth performs much-needed maintenance on our roads and bridges, such as the Larz Anderson Bridge over the Charles that carries me to work, congestion intensifies, ramping up the pain.
Building more highways isn't a sustainable long-run solution, not only because of its high financial price. When we try expand our highway system, we just encourage drivers to live further away and drive more regularly, especially if we don't charge for the costs of commuting.
Historically, we funded our highways with gas taxes which went into the national Highway Trust Fund, but since 1993 we've kept the national gas tax at an inadequate 18.4 cents per gallon. As a result, the most recent transportation bill, just like the stimulus act, had to rely on general tax revenues. In other words, instead of charging drivers for the costs of building and maintaining roads, we've subsidized car commuters.
Governor Patrick originally wanted to raise gas taxes to deal with the lingering costs of the Big Dig, but our gas tax has remained at 21 cents per gallon — relatively low both in the region and nationwide. We should raise gas taxes to pay for highway maintenance and to reduce energy use, but even that won't address Greater Boston's rush-hour congestion problem. Gas taxes cost the midnight driver in Western Massachusetts just as much as the 8 a.m. Boston commuter.
In the old Soviet Union, grocery stores sold eggs and meat at low prices and the result was long lines and severe shortages. In modern Massachusetts, we sell access to our valuable roads for far too little and the result is traffic jams, the transportation equivalent of egg shortages. People still pay exorbitantly for their daily commutes, but they pay inefficiently with lost time, instead of transfering cash to our underfunded transportation agencies. Worse, every rush-hour driver imposes costs on other drivers by slowing down their commutes, and our roads won't get faster until we charge for those costs with electronic road pricing.
There is a better way. Singapore is the second-densest country on the planet, but its roads move fluidly because it charges drivers for the congestion they create with fees that differ based on traffic conditions. In this all-electronic system, motorists need not slow down to pay. Happily, Massachusetts has increased its use of the EZPass system, but we have much farther to go.
The critical step is to have fees that drastically increase after 6 a.m. and drastically fall after 9 a.m., especially for the trucks that particularly slow down traffic. In doing so, we would nudge drivers to use those highways more during empty hours and less during peak times. Similarly, we should charge particularly high fees for using particularly crowded exits, like the Allston-Brighton exchange that I use.
Of course, Massachusetts can't easily impose tolls on many of the state's major highways because of federal restrictions on tolling on interstate highways. It's worth pressing Congress to reverse this policy. Far from banning tolls on the interstate and using general tax revenues to fund highways, Congress should embrace tolls.
One worry about higher tolls is that they put an undue burden on poorer drivers. Yet tolls can also help free up money for strong public transportation alternatives. And once drivers must defray the cost their commutes impose on others, nimble private alternatives can emerge — including jitneys, the small buses that can profitably serve less-dense areas. High tolls on car commutes will make it easier for bus and van riders to get to work because they'll experience less congestion as they drive.
It will take political courage to increase highway charges, but there is no better way to make commutes faster and more pleasant for all.
Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is the director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.