Friday 10 January 2014

News briefs - Australia, China, USA (California, Texas, Washington)

Australia - CEO of South Australian borough calls for congestion pricing

Unley is one of the boroughs of Adelaide and according to the Herald Sun, the Unley Council  Chief Executive, Peter Tsokas has proposed to the South Australian State Government, that congestion charging be introduced to raise revenue for public transport.  He specifically called for charges on some roads at peak times to manage congestion.  The reaction has been negative from the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia, although not completely dismissive:

Automotive policy manager Mark Borlace said congestion charges were more suitable in heavily gridlocked traffic zones.  He said the priorities for Adelaide should be improving traffic flow on the city rim, upgrading the north-south transit corridor and improving public transport connections. "When you know that people have ways of going around the congested areas where you don't want cars, then you can have those kind of behavioural things (such as congestion charging)," 

A South Australian state government spokewoman said the government was opposed to tolls and congestion charging.  It's notable that all of the comments under the article were anti congestion charging, except for one that advocated tolling for a new road as long as the toll paid for the road and ended after the debts for constructing the road were paid.

Of course, any debate about congestion charging in Adelaide ought also to include whether it would be an option to replace some existing taxes.

China - Future for congestion charging

Charles Komanoff writes in Streetsblog about his view on where congestion pricing might head in China.   He notes rightly that air pollution is as much an issue as congestion, but revenue generation is not important.

However, the key problems China faces in implementation are around the vested interests and potential losers from any sort of implementation. China needs a comprehensive strategic approach to how road vehicles are taxed and charged, which simply doesn't exists at present.  A key part of this is having the legal framework to enforce any fines or violation notices in a country where traffic safety violation enforcement is haphazard at best.

China has a long way to go, and it could do worse than encourage Hong Kong to implement one of the options extensively studied well over a decade ago, and to encourage at least one mainland city to introduce a cordon charge.

California - Orange County rejects tolling new lanes on I-405

Further to the post I wrote in December on this,  Orange County voted to add an additional lane to the I-405, but rejecting tolling according to the LA Times. It appears that there was little argument made about making highway expansion more sustainable and efficient, but rather that because improvements are partly funded out of a sales tax (don't ask, it's a weird socialist concept that some in the US adopt of dedicated taxes on retail activity to pay for roads).  Voice of OC describes the rather shallow debate.  Whereas NBC reports that the new lanes will cost around US$700 million, which of course will come predominantly not from those using them or directly benefiting from them.  

Texas - HOT lane fines unenforceable

Associated Press, carried by The Trucker, reports that  Houston Metro has no means to legally force non-compliant motorists to pay fines.  Apparently US$740,000 in fines have been issued, but although violators are notified three times of the fines and asked to pay, there is no legal means to enforce it.

This is absolutely laughable as a public policy failure.  Questions ought to be asked.  Who approved for such lanes to be introduced without a legal means to enforce violations?  Was it an oversight by policy makers, or did politicians ignore warnings and decide to press on regardless?  Is this a case of a system being introduced designed by engineers, without advice from lawyers or policy consultants?

Given this is now news, I wouldn't be surprised if, within a few months, the lanes prove to be an abject failure when it becomes well known that the fines are simply requests to pay with no means to do anything about it.

Enforcement is a core component of any electronic free flow tolling system, and needs to include the legal means to treat non-payment of tolls, and fines, as debts that can be recovered like any others.  At the very least, it seems absurd that such fines can't be treated as a penalty for trespass - for unauthorised usage of HOT lanes might be seen as such, if the law would properly define it.

Meanwhile, a report from local TV station KFox14 in El Paso notes that the new toll lanes on the Border Highway are not physically separated from the untolled lanes, but separated by double white lines.  This raises concerns that some road users will weave to avoid detection in the lanes and weave back across the lines, but the answer to this is to enforce the existing prohibition on crossing double white lines on the road. Enforcement of that law is expected to effectively enforce the separate toll lanes.   Hopefully, this should work if done resolutely and sufficiently.

USA - Trucking lobby sceptical about distance based taxation

I read with some amusement an article in The Trucker.Com commenting about Oregon's plans to introduce a vehicle mileage tax.  The key points being:

The American Trucknig Association being concerned about "collection costs, privacy and information security issues, significant potential for evasion and various very difficult institutional issues, including the potential for a lack of interstate interoperability".  Given almost all of these issues are resolvable, I think there may be a bigger concern that the charges set will inevitably mean the heaviest trucks travelling the longest distances will pay more.  The problem is that there is little evidence in the US as to whether there is an appropriate recovery of infrastructure costs now.

What is needed is not resistance, but a reasoned economic debate about the true infrastructure costs of highways and how to efficiently allocate those costs among types of vehicles.  Sadly in the US there is precious little decent analysis about this, and insufficient political will to let charges for road use be based on objective values.  

Washington - State discusses options for future revenues

The Kent Reporter notes that the Washington State Transportation Commission is completing an evaluation of the business case for ways to replace the gas tax with a road usage charge system.

It is intended to report in January 2014 about options to move forward with charging vehicles according to how much they use the roads, rather than fuel, with this work being informed substantially by the trials underway in Oregon.  The findings of work done so far can be found in this presentation, which outlines the key issues very well.  According to this paper, the final report will be issued on 11 January.

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