“Not uncontroversial” is how the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB’s) 1994 Annual Report described the consensus study Curbing Gridlock: Peak-Period Fees to Relieve Traffic Congestion (TRB Special Report 242). The Committee for Study on Urban Transportation Congestion Pricing had dared to suggest that the federal government should encourage tolls on the country’s congested streets and highways.
Using pricing to manage travel during peak hours of traffic was not a new idea. As far back as the Fifth Annual Meeting in December 1925, Jacob Viner, The University of Chicago, examined the “economic control of traffic through the development of fees based on the use of road space at peak periods.” In the mid-1970s, TRB hosted a major series of workshops on urban transportation economics, sponsored by the Department of Transportation (USDOT), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Energy Administration, that dedicated days to discussions of pricing alternatives.
In the early 1990s, the time was ripe for revisiting congestion pricing. Federal transportation policy put a stronger emphasis on demand management. In addition, new technologies promised to make it easier to collect tolls and feasible to vary the price by time of day or traffic conditions. Because central to the analysis was how people respond to price changes, TRB partnered with the National Research Council’s Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) jointly sponsored the consensus study. The study also invited an unusually large number of liaisons. In addition to representatives from FHWA and FTA, liaison experts—who participate but do not vote on final recommendations—hailed from American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, American Automobile Association, Ford Motor Company, Highway Users Federation for Safety and Mobility, and American Trucking Associations. The committee, chaired by Martin Wachs, University of California, Los Angeles, commissioned 18 research papers on topics such as pricing and travel behavior, parking, urban form, and motor vehicle emissions, in addition to learning about electronic toll collection and the experience in other industries with peak-period pricing.
Although Curbing Gridlock recommended expanding experiments in congestion pricing and easing policy barriers to tolling, the committee also recognized that imposing new tolls would be politically difficult. Drawing heavily on a commissioned paper by Genevieve Giuliano on “Equity and Fairness Considerations of Congestion Pricing,” the committee also recommended additional research and better policies addressing the needs of lower income groups.
In the years following Curbing Gridlock, federal transportation laws did indeed ease restrictions on adding toll lanes to Interstate highways and allowing solo drivers to pay a toll to use carpool lanes. Electronic toll collection has made variable pricing popular too.
Political controversy continued, however, and the term “Lexus Lanes” entered the public debate. (In the early 1900s, “peacock lanes” was the term of choice to cast aspersions on highways designed and operated to speed wealthy car owners.) In the 2000s, TRB’s Executive Committee began emphasizing “transportation equity” in periodic updates of its critical issues list.
In 2008, TRB’s Executive Committee decided to confront the fairness of how the country pays for transportation. TRB funded a consensus study on the Equity Implications of Evolving Transportation Finance Mechanisms (TRB Special Report 303). Chaired by Joseph L. Schofer, Northwestern University, the committee worked to deepen political conversations about equity in all its “various dimensions” and encouraged policy makers to more fully “engage the public in decision making.”