Doug Wright – Stuck on the Freeway

I rarely listen to the Doug Wright show. When I do, I generally wonder afterwards how I am any better off than if I had simply listened to the fuzz between stations. Today I happened to hear Doug when I turned on the radio and he was speaking on a subject I care about – tolling in Utah. It did not take long to conclude that Doug must have been stuck on the freeway when the discussions of tolling were starting – because he’s behind the times on the debate. Doug talks as if the tolling were going to happen only on the Mountain View Corridor and that planners were suggesting that it would only last until the bonds were paid off. I think it’s time that Doug caught up to what’s really being discussed more recently.

First, nobody is pretending that tolling is a temporary measure, so Doug is right that once that door is opened it won’t be closed again. Doug also fails to recognize that we already have a toll lane on I-15 with the possibility of other lanes starting to be tolled in the future so the door has already been opened to tolling in Utah.

Second, as cars get better fuel efficiency the government (State and Federal) receives fewer tax dollars per vehicle mile traveled to maintain roads. Regardless of how innovative our ancestors were, we have to find more revenue to maintain that transportation infrastructure. Perhaps Doug would like us to raise the gas tax – as if that would not disproportionally hit the poorest people (the same complaint he makes against tolling). That option fails to address the possibility of a future with other fuel alternatives and the fact that we must find a way to generate revenue in a way that is fair according to use regardless of other factors such as what fuel one person’s vehicle uses or how efficient the vehicle is. Fair revenue would be based on usage (miles traveled being the best measure of usage in my mind).

Third, Doug is referencing revenue projections on toll roads that were built for the purpose of generating revenue. The Mountain View Corridor needs to be built regardless of what revenue it might generate. Any revenue it generates is better than not generating any revenue. Also, lower revenue is an indication of lower usage which results in lower maintenance costs. For a road that is already necessary the risk of low revenue is minimal and tolling a necessary road is a totally different situation than adding new road capacity in order to generate revenue.

Let’s review what’s really being discussed.

    • Simple tolling is being less talked about than congestion pricing – which is even more fair because the cost is adjusted based on the usage levels when the driving is happening and it means that people can plan most of their trips at low-toll or no-toll times.
    • Calls to include similar tolling options on I-15 and the Mountain View Corridor are increasing. There is no reason that tolling should favor one area over another.
    • Electronic tolling would prevent the sitting in line using up gas that Doug complains about. Anyone who was using a toll road regularly would be getting an electronic monitor. Only those who are passing through or who use the roads infrequently would ever have to be stopped at a toll booth.

There are arguments against tolling that deserve consideration, but Doug missed any of those. My conclusion is – if we get congestion pricing as I envision it and I had to listen to Doug Wright I can promise that I would pay the highest toll rates to get off the road as fast as possible in order to minimize my listening time.

12 comments for “Doug Wright – Stuck on the Freeway

  1. August 21, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Several places in the country have built public lanes and then have sold the rights to build private lanes in the median between the public lanes. The private vendors use congestion pricing. Government pays nothing for congestion reduction. They don’t even raise anyone’s taxes to do it. A model like that could work in certain corridors.

  2. August 22, 2008 at 11:09 am

    The way the new 2100 North road in Lehi is designed currently would allow for that – I wonder if that will be the way it is eventually built out.

  3. August 22, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    One problem with tolls is that it introduces yet another collection system with overhead of its own. I prefer to use an existing system like the gas tax. But we can discuss forever the various systems and their merits without addressing the core problem. Congestion is caused by workers. So we should eliminate the workers. I am convinced that encouraging telework is the best long term solution. A proportion of my wife’s week is done through telework, thus permanently eliminating one commuter on that day.

    We have seen how quickly the state and other employers moved to implement a 4-day work week. Many employers could move just as fast to implement working from home. If they wanted to.

  4. August 22, 2008 at 9:16 pm


    I absolutely agree that telecommuting is a good idea and would address this issue. I think where you and I disagree is that I don’t believe that telecommuting is enough to eliminate the problem because many jobs are not conducive to telecommuting even part time (of course, I don’t think that congestion pricing all by itself can solve this either – we need a milti-pronged approach to our traffic crowding).

  5. August 22, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    One approach would be to estimate by what percentage of the commute would need to be reduced so that traffic is at an acceptable level. Suppose that percentage is 20%. That 20% should be easily obtained with telecommuting. Anyone who works in front of computer would be a candidate for telework. For example, out of my family of seven, six of us could telecommute. The seventh installs fences so his destination is different every day.

    So agreed, telework can’t get every worker off the road but it can work for a goodly portion. I like to put it this way: move the 1’s and 0’s and not the people.

    But back to the topic (apologies). I don’t like the concept of a congestion tax because it uses a stick when there are carrots a plenty to tempt the toiling peasantry.

  6. August 22, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    If it’s 20% now, how does that adjust as population continues to increase? I like the idea of moving 1’s and 0’s rather than people, but that only works where 1’s and 0’s are concerned.

    I can accept your desire to use carrots in preference to sticks. I don’t think that congestion-pricing is necessarily a stick – depending on your perspective it could be viewed as a carrot to entice people to drive outside the congested times.

  7. August 22, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    Hmmm, a congestion tax is a big fat stick about anyway you look at it. You can test it this way: volunteers to pay a congestion tax step forward. Volunteers to telecommute step forward.

    What is interesting here is why my wife’s company decided to allow telecommuting. Price of gas? No. Employee benefit? No. They did it because they are short of office space. Prior to the space shortage there was no reason to allow employees to work from home except that the company didn’t want to do it. Everything is in place to allow it, it is just that companies will not do it because it is the employees that bear the commuting burden in money and time.

    By the way, my son-in-law who has a degree in city planning agrees with you. And what is even more annoying is that he can back up his arguments very well with an education that my daughter helped to pay for. 🙂

    I agree that congestion pricing could be implemented a lot quicker and would help to prod companies into looking at telecommuting.

  8. August 22, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    If it’s any comfort, I stepped forward on both of your invitations (to pay the congestion pricing and to telecommute) – I’ve done toll roads before, and I have telecommuted for much of my employment and I found both of them to be beneficial from the standpoint of the consumer/employee.

  9. August 23, 2008 at 12:20 am

    The problem is that the efficiency of our vehicles is increasing over time which means that – contrary to the increasing cost of maintaining our roadways – the revenue per vehicle mile traveled is dropping (less efficient SUV’s etc. notwithstanding). I have enjoyed various means of mass transit since starting to work downtown (I’m too close to make use of FrontRunner) and transit, like tolling and telecommuting, should be an element of our overall solution.

  10. August 22, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    I can see there is some benefit from a toll, namely an uncongested road. When I used a toll road in Florida I was struck by how empty the road was as compared to a nearby road headed in the same direction that was not a toll road. I had the same experience in California.

    On each occasion it seemed such a waste of a road. I view toll roads as an inefficient waste of resources. The same as the HOV lane, a waste of a lane. Although the gas tax doesn’t solve congestion it seems a fair way to fund roads. Drive a big SUV, you pay more tax. I don’t see funding as a problem. A congestion tax would hit those who are mandated to drive at a certain hour (employees). There has to be a better way. Perhaps FrontRunner? Interestingly, on the days my wife has to go into work she has been using FrontRunner and really likes it. Recently it has become so congested (no empty seats) that she has started to drive again. Perhaps a seat tax for FrontRunner at peak times?

    It does show that if commuters are given reasonable alternatives they will be utilized.

    I might mention that I drive north from Kaysville to go to work so I would not be affected by congestion pricing. So I can be convinced of the folly of my ways.

  11. August 23, 2008 at 6:44 am

    The drop in revenue per vehicle mile traveled is easily fixed by raising the gasoline tax. I don’t see revenue as a problem. And we are agreed that congestion is what we want cured.

    Perhaps I have missed the discussion but are there any specifics on how congestion pricing would be implemented? How much administrative overhead would be involved?

  12. August 23, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Admittedly the gas tax has an established collection mechanism while congestion pricing would require new overhead. Still, no matter how far we raise the gas tax we still have to come up with new mechanisms as alternative fuels become more widespread (and they will).

    I wish I had some details about what administrative overhead would be involved in implementing congestion pricing, but I don’t think it would be any greater than whatever is in the works to start electronic monitoring of the toll lane we already have.

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