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Opinion | David Keith

Massachusetts needs congestion pricing now

A long-awaited study from the Baker adminstration confirms that traffic in the state is bad — and getting worse.
A long-awaited study from the Baker adminstration confirms that traffic in the state is bad — and getting worse.(KEITH BEDFORD/GLOBE STAFF/FILE)

The Baker administration’s overdue and long-awaited congestion study confirmed what those of us stuck in Greater Boston’s worst-in-the-nation traffic already knew: Traffic congestion in the Commonwealth is bad, and it is getting worse. The study is refreshingly honest, explaining when, where, and why bottlenecks have emerged in our state, and makes practical recommendations on ways that we may ease the gridlock, such as increasing MBTA capacity, building more affordable housing near transit, and encouraging telecommuting. The reality, however, is that we just have way too many people commuting by car, and it is unrealistic to expect that we can solve this problem unless we also actively discourage people from driving.

What MassDOT needs is a mandate from state and city leaders to implement the only proven solution for traffic gridlock: pricing access to our major roads at peak hours. Given Governor Baker’s centrist, data-driven governing philosophy, his reluctance to experiment with congestion pricing is perplexing. Congestion pricing is a market-based reform of a poorly performing government asset (our roads). Results from regions around the world show that congestion pricing works, which is one reason why the Governor’s own Commission on the Future of Transportation has already recommended exploring it. Charging a price to drive at peak times makes explicit the social cost that each driver imposes on other drivers in the form of slower travel times, and creates an incentive for commuters to travel at other times, or to choose other transportation modes. In London, the congestion pricing cordon implemented around the inner-city core in 2003 has reduced traffic congestion by 30 percent, increased traffic speeds by 30 percent, and improved travel time reliability, with commensurate improvements in urban air quality. When Seattle started charging peak tolls on its State Route 520 corridor, traffic volumes dropped by 34 percent and transit ridership increased by 38 percent.

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The congestion on our roads and the ailing state of our public transit system are intrinsically linked. Driving around Greater Boston is miserable for millions of people every day, and yet it is still preferable to their next best alternative. It follows logically that if we want people to drive less at peak times, we need to make driving relatively less attractive than riding public transit, biking, and walking. Pricing access to roads moderates demand for driving at peak times while also generating revenue from drivers that can be reinvested in building a 21st century mobility infrastructure, providing people with more options: frequent and reliable public transit, separated bike lanes, and walkable streets. The more roads we price, the better our multi-modal transportation system will become, encouraging people to get out of their cars, and bringing the performance of the system into balance. Closing this feedback loop will ensure that people will have the choice to drive if they want to, and to get to their destination efficiently, but also ensures that many of us won’t drive because we will choose even better alternatives.

Putting a price on something that we think of as “free” today is inevitably going to take some getting used to. But the reality is that we are already paying a very high price to drive on our roads — we are paying with our time, time that could be better spent with our friends and family, or at our schools and workplaces. Congestion pricing will get drivers and bus-riders where we need to go, and at the same time improve our air quality, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and better connect our regional economy.

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The people of Massachusetts are innovative, progressive, and resilient, and we deserve transportation policies that reflects these qualities. We should embrace congestion pricing as a central pillar of our mobility future.

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David Keith a professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.