Traffic. We all hate it, we all wish it would go away, and we all agree that something should be done about it. We also have good reason to feel this way. On the INRIX 2018 Traffic Scorecard, Baltimore was ranked the 15th most-congested city in the United States, with each commuter losing an average of 94 hours to congestion over the year. City drivers may also experience flashbacks to last summer, when a poorly implemented adjustment of traffic lights turned downtown rush hour into a complete nightmare. How do we reduce this congestion, particularly downtown? New York City thinks it may have the answer, as it is on the path to becoming the first American city to implement congestion pricing.
So, what is congestion pricing? Under the plan, drivers in NYC would pay a fee whenever they entered the congestion pricing zone, which in this case is expected to be the entire section of Manhattan located below Central Park. Details are still in flux, but the fee is expected to only be charged for entering the zone, not for exiting or driving within it. It is also uncertain whether there will be exemptions or discounts for residents, low-income drivers, or drivers on their way to medical appointments. The fee may also be discounted during nights and weekends, when traffic is generally lighter. While most efforts to reduce congestion (like expansion of roads and public transportation) require budgetary funds, this plan is actually expected to generate $1 billion in revenue every year.
New York’s move towards congestion pricing has also sparked efforts in other cities. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle are all taking steps towards implementing similar plans, while on the East Coast, the idea is creeping south on I-95 towards Philadelphia. But despite this growing enthusiasm, don’t expect congestion pricing to come to Baltimore anytime soon, for many different reasons. In particular, NYC’s robust subway system and high population support congestion pricing in ways that simply do not apply to Baltimore.
From a practical perspective, Baltimore does not have the public transportation infrastructure to support congestion pricing and many area residents would have very few alternatives if they suddenly faced an additional vehicle fee. To avoid congestion pricing in NYC, commuters and tourists can simply choose to take a train. Travelers in Baltimore, on the other hand, cannot be pushed towards public transportation in the same manner.
For example, consider the morning commute to Tradepoint Atlantic, a relatively new employment hub that hopes to support up to 17,000 jobs. Tradepoint Atlantic is a 30-50 minute drive by car from Mondawmin or Mt. Vernon, two city neighborhoods that would likely touch a theoretical Baltimore congestion pricing zone. However, the same commute to Tradepoint Atlantic via Baltimore’s bus system is roughly an hour and a half each way. This commute would also involve multiple transfers, increasing the risks of delays if there are issues along any of the bus routes. Asking workers to commute for at least three hours a day, simply to avoid a congestion fee, would not be likely to win approval with city residents or leadership.
In addition to issues of public transportation, charging vehicles to drive through Baltimore neighborhoods has the potential to exacerbate issues of population decline and vacant housing in the city, issues that are the polar opposite of New York City’s housing crisis. In addition, it is doubtful that Baltimore leaders want to discourage residents of the surrounding counties from driving into the city to visit shops, restaurants, museums, and other tourist attractions given the city’s perception issues. Even a small congestion fee that could potentially discourage new residents or visitors to Baltimore is likely to be a political non-starter.
On the bright side, Baltimore’s traffic issues pale in comparison to those of DC, which is ranked as the 2nd most-congested city in the United States. Despite having an extensive Metro system, it is notable that DC is facing declining ridership as the area’s population grows. Congestion pricing could work to nudge commuters back to the Metro and combat the increasing gridlock. For these reasons, it is likely that congestion pricing would take hold in DC long before becoming a viable option in Baltimore. Someday in the future, Baltimore may grow to have both the problems and resources that make congestion pricing a logical solution to the city’s traffic issues. Until then, Baltimore’s drivers and decision makers will have plenty of time to think of solutions while they crawl along the Beltway.