Why don’t we charge for rush-hour freeway access?

Crowded roads are one of the classic examples of “commons problems.” If a good is rival in consumption but its use is unlimited, then it tends to get overused to the point where its value to everyone who uses it is diminished, if not extinguished. The solution is as well known as the problem: charge for use of the scarce resource. London has already instituted a charge for bringing a car into the built-up area, and even that quite crude measure seems to have been a success.

In addition to fixing a major headache for travelers and massively reducing air pollution, congestion charges could make a very substantial contribution to fixing the state’s budget problems.($10 per commute times 5 million crowded commutes per day commutes times 250 workdays per year is $12.5 billion, which is roughly the shortfall in the state budget.)

Here’s the puzzle: with the rush-hour commute from the High Desert to Los Angeles now clocking in at two hours each way, and the state of California tottering toward bankrupcy, why hasn’t the idea of congestion prices on the freeways at least risen to the status of a political loser? Of course there would be complexity and hasn’t even made it into the the radar screen.

Part of the answer seems to be that the government-haters have convinced the voters that money available for public expenditure is actually perceived as a disadvantage.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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