A dip in the road

This is how entrenched bureaucracies threaten public policy. Mass Pike usage drops by 3.5% in May without any change in tolls and the Turnpike authority responds with concern about authority revenues.

Here's the appropriate response:

  1. Express elation with the drop in driving
  2. Demand that state subsidy shift towards the growing MBTA ridership (up 5.3% in May)
  3. Increase tolls to encourage greater shift to transit

Question to the boston.com/Globe headline staff: in what universe is a 3.5% decline in 'Pike usage a "dip"?

Update: To counter any allegations of being cavalier, a more thoughtful and complete policy for our state highways should include:

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    Comments

    Demand that state subsidy

    By on

    Demand that state subsidy shift towards the growing MBTA ridership (up 5.3% in May)

    Given the ineptitude the MBTA has shown at managing its $6BN+ debt, I think anything less than a near-total bailout by the state will be pointless.

    Interesting, isn't it, how the Guvnah has $1BN to piss away to the biotech firms, but can't be bothered to help the MBTA dig itself out so that it can start spending money on capital improvements and maintenance, instead of interest on its debt?

    How much deeper into debt can the MBTA get? What happens when they hit the bottom? Talk about a white elephant...

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    Sucker's Game

    The MBTA debt is unmanageable because it was designed that way. The commonwealth tied debt and payments to an endless spiral of sales-tax growth. That was the only way the T could manage self-sufficiency. When the sales tax plunged and remained down, the government never adjusted the debt.

    It is prime stupidity. No matter how bad T management was and is, it can't win this game until the commonwealth admits its massive idiocy and fixes it.

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    Wow, a 3.5% drop in Pike usage?

    Of course, that means that the Pike's budget can
    now be cut by 3.5%, because there's that much less
    maintenance required, right?

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    The Problem

    By on

    There is a big problem here however if there is not also a commiserate drop on I-93 and any other roads in their charge, since the Pike serves to subsidize N-S drivers by charging E-W drivers alone.

    This is why we don't put you in charge of the roads around here, I guess.

    In fact, I'm just wildly guessing here:

    E-W people are noticing less drivers, which means free options like routes 9, 20, and 30 are not as jammed up as they used to be at rush hour. Yet, 93N and the Southeast Expressway are free to drivers and thus staying filled as they always are since they are the best free routes for getting out of town in their respective directions.

    Therefore, the Pike sees a reduction in traffic because people are using free alternatives whereas the opposite is likely true for anyone who might notice less backups on 93. More N-S drivers are likely to jump *on* to the highways if given the option over lesser routes.

    But as I said, the Pike pays for upkeep on all of the highways..so now, you've got less people taking the Pike in lieu of free routes and as many people taking I-93 as before because it's still the best free route for its directions.

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    Really?

    By on

    You think that a 3.5% drop following a huge gas price increase is attributable to taking free roads? We'd need to see traffic counts for 9, 20, and 30, but something about the corresponding increase in MBTA ridership suggests that they are ditching their cars.

    As for charging on I-93, you make an incorrect assumption. I'm a big proponent of a toll on 93, at least the part that travels under Boston.

    Finally, while I agree that it is a problem that there is not a commensurate drop in I-93 traffic, we describe the problem differently. I think it's too bad that there's still so much traffic on 93. But what you call a problem I think is a benefit: if the subsidy source -- E/W traffic on the 'Pike -- dries up, it just means that somebody's going to have to figure out a new funding source for N/S traffic. And, that's likely either a toll or a gas tax hike.

    From where I stand, it's all good.

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    Don't misconstrue

    By on

    I didn't really make any assumptions about your stance on 93 tolls. I simply said that your proposals to continue driving people off of the Pike (the only thing you addressed in your original post) are an awful idea given that this money pays for more than just the Pike and that it's not bureaucracy to worry about that revenue stream when they have many more needs, like 93, for the dropping revenue they were previously accounting for in their future budgets.

    As the subsidy source dries up, your answer was to help hasten it and shift funding to the MBTA. If your original comment had talked about a toll or gas tax hike to draw on N-S drivers to cover for the lost revenue as part of the "appropriate response" then it would have been less cavalier sounding and more in tune with some very real reasons that they are worried about the authority's revenues. Sometimes they aren't only in it for themselves.

    I'm with you that I'd love to see more European-esque solutions to mass transit problems in the US (particularly very European-style cities like Boston). Rush hour toll boosts, higher gas taxes, and more money for rapid transit solutions are all great ideas. But right now we have the system we have and if funds are taken from one entity, a lot of other parts under that entity will soon suffer. The ideal may be good, but the result could be disasterous in the current environment.

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    No longer cavalier

    By on

    In violent agreement instead.

    Peace out, dog!

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    The numbers

    By on

    This article was a slap-dash job from the MBTA/MassPike press briefs and a call to AAA for comment. It would have been nice if he'd been a bit more probing about how the numbers add up, instead we're left to calculate a bit and make some assumptions. In fact, at one point he talks about turnpike "riders" being down, yet the Turnpike numbers are in cars/drivers and there's no way to know how many people per car. So, the article is just a bit sloppy in its data and way that it treats the info.

    Anyways, there's a 600,000 car drop on the Pike. If we assume that is primarily from weekdays, then that's about 30,000 less cars per weekday for 20 weekdays in the month. The MBTA ridership is up 5.3% to 1,300,000 per weekday which is about 60,000-65,000 more per weekday. So, twice as many people are getting on the MBTA than left the Pike. It would have been nice to hear how Riverside or other D Line stops were increased along with Alewife, just to get a better feel for what portion of the increase is due to Pike drivers getting off the Pike and onto the MBTA rather than just conflating the two stats as if they were somehow related directly.

    So, are all 30,000 drivers now part of the 60,000 MBTA riders? Are they just carpooling now (something the MTA could have told the journalist based on possible increases in the Carpool Discount Program if he'd asked)? Are they just taking other routes that don't cost them $2 extra per day because some of those other routes' drivers are taking the MBTA? Hard to say. I also haven't necessarily heard that our gas consumption is down in the state/city either, which you think would be the case if all of these 30,000+ daily drivers are taking the MBTA instead.

    It's a pretty shoddy article to just leave these two pieces of information out there in the same article as if they were necessarily related.

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    Know what I'd like?

    By on

    To pay $0 in federal taxes for highway maintenance, and pay $10-$15 tolls. Make the users of each individual highway pay to use them. That's the fairest system.

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    Dedicated Gas Tax

    Since damage to infrastructure roughly scales to vehicle size, and vehicle size is related to fuel use, it works out all around.

    That and you don't have to pay for expensive toll infrastructure and congestion, or all the emergency services that toll plaza related accidents generate.

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    Why do people still

    By on

    Why do people still associate tolls with toll plazas?

    Its like complaining about an online service because it will be slow on a 56k modem.

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    Claiming something is the

    By on

    Claiming something is the fairest doesn't make it so. Tolls are also an incredibly inefficient way to collect money, even with transponders, and they increase pollution and traffic.

    Even if you don't use a highway directly by driving on it, you probably want that highway to be there so your supermarket can be stocked with food and so the Red Cross can deliver supplies to disaster areas and so the military can move their equipment and personnel around (the reasoning behind the initial construction of the interstate highway system).

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    Paying for use

    By on

    I want a robust city water system so that there's adequate water at the nearest hydrant in the event my house starts to burn, but that's not a reason for my not paying for my water use.

    Similarly, I can want a road by my house for ambulances, buses, fire trucks, and garbage trucks to use and still support charging drivers for their use of the roads.

    It's all a question of subsidy. If I don't drive as much as the average driver, then any tax money (other than gas tax) that supports our commonwealth's roadway infrastructure is a subsidy to those who drive more than I do. If we all paid our fair share based on use, there would be no subsidy for high-mileage drivers. And, we'd still have roads for emergency and other vehicles.

    The same line of thinking applies to trucks that supply groceries. Why shouldn't food more accurately reflect the cost of maintaining the infrastructure to deliver it. If it did, the supermarkets, the manufacturers, and the middlemen would all have a direct incentive to find the most efficient method of transport. And, items that overuse the infrastructure would get priced out of the market. Subsidies for road transportation distort the market and lead to bad decision-making.

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    And another thing

    By on

    Tolls are an incredibly efficient way of allocating the costs of a particular road to its users.

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    And yet another thing

    Tolls only cover the roads they are on, where a gas tax can cover that road and all others used by the same vehicles.

    They also cut out all of the infrastructure costs, billing costs, service fees, etc. associated with tolls.

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    London's "congestion charge"

    is essentially an automatically collected toll. It gets generally good reviews, and NYC has considered doing the same thing.

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    Canada

    By BR on

    In Toronto, there is a toll road, the 407, that's a lot faster than the 401 to get into the city. They set it up so that it bills your license plate, no matter where you're from. I drove through the city using it a couple times, and sure enough, I got a bill. Obviously if you have a transponder it works in the normal FastLane way, but if not they just send a bill to wherever the vehicle is registered.

    That's the only option I can see working for 93 or any of the other roads mentioned above.

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    Crushed on the Green Line

    By on

    Riggs reports:

    Rush hour on a Tuesday, and the MBTA is running empty, "no service" trains and single-car trains.

    What happened to always having two car trains? ...

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    And they're a bit too eager

    By on

    And they're a bit too eager to pull the 60ft buses off the #39 and Silver Line (Washington Branch, at least) and run 40ft buses that are standing room only by the second or third stops.

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    Economics 101

    By on

    Supply and demand.

    If people are not buying at the current price, raising prices will not increase revenues. The only way to raise revenues, overall, is to drop the price of that which is for sale, thus increasing total unit sales of the item. This garners a lower % profit from each sold, but a higher $ profit in total.

    Some of the proponents of raising tolls have it right, in that if you want to make The Pike a ghost road, keep raising the tolls. The same goes for making any other roads toll roads. It will definitely send people to alternate transportation. However, they will mostly seek out the free roads prior to abandoning their cars in favor of public transportation. That's just human nature, to try and find a solution close to what is already being used.

    The major point, though, is that you can't accomplish both an increase in revenues from roads and a concurrent significant rise in public transit ridership. One or the other, but not both - at least in a capitalist system.

    Suldog
    http://jimsuldog.blogspot.com

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    Simplist-enomics

    By on

    Sorry, Suldog.

    That's too simplistic an explanation of supply and demand to apply to the 'Pike.

    I'm not an economist, but I do know that your conclusion (that raising the 'Pike toll will only lead to diminished revenues) misses a salient point. The good (in this case the right to travel on the Turnpike) is not now rationally priced. If it were, I would agree that an increase in the toll would send people scurrying to alternatives in sufficient numbers to offset any increased revenue from drivers who stay.

    But it's not. Not everyone on the 'Pike is paying the maximum they could or would pay for a toll. Since it's woefully underpriced, an increase in the toll would almost certainly result in more revenue from remaining drivers than lost drivers. Want evidence? People continue to use the 'Pike, despite sometimes insane traffic. Obviously, those alternatives are not so alluring, even free.

    But, it's easy to prove or disprove. Establish that the 'Pike tolls will be market-based. That is, the tolls will go up and down on an hourly basis based on peak demand (with 30 days notice of any change). Jack the tolls up during rush hour. If it loses money, bring 'em back down.

    Two more points:

    • One way to keep the 'Pike attractive relative to alternatives is to start charging for alternatives. Why should it cost me nothing to drive east/west through Newton on three arteries that are parallel to the 'Pike and I get charged for the 'Pike?
    • If you rationally charge for the 'Pike, you're going to make the 'Pike a lot more attractive to those willing to pay top dollar. Right now, there's a guy sitting in his car in traffic wishing he could pay $15 bucks to get to Boston faster. If there are alternatives to those who won't or can't pay $15, they stop using the 'Pike, which reduces traffic. In that way, we make better use of the asset by properly pricing it.
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    Sorry AGAIN Suldog

    By on

    Demand has another characteristic called "elasticity" which you fail to consider.

    The demand for a good is relatively inelastic when the quantity demanded does not change much with the price change. Goods and services for which no substitutes exist are generally inelastic. Demand for an antibiotic, for example, becomes highly inelastic when it alone can kill an infection resistant to all other antibiotics. Rather than die of an infection, patients will generally be willing to pay whatever is necessary to acquire enough of the antibiotic to kill the infection.

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    Again...

    By on

    Quoting myself, which is always dangerous...

    "The major point, though, is that you can't accomplish both an increase in revenues from roads and a concurrent significant rise in public transit ridership. One or the other, but not both - at least in a capitalist system."

    I see nothing here that makes me believe otherwise.

    Inelasticity does not apply when there are many alternate driving routes AND public transportation. If The Pike were the only way to get between two points, you'd have one :-)

    Suldog
    http://jimsuldog.blogspot.com

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    the laws of physics do not apply...

    By on

    "Inelasticity does not apply when there are many alternate driving routes AND public transportation."

    Inelasticity always applies. The question is the extent to which it applies. Inelasticity describes that amount of demand that is not sensitive to price increase.

    Just how high do you think the toll must be before the person who commutes from Worcester/Palmer/Springfield drives route 9 or route 20 or takes public transportation? It's $2.70 from Palmer now. What public transportation to Boston exists beyond Worcester?

    Does the guy commuting on Mass Pike who makes 200,000 a year in Boston give a shit if the toll is $20 each way? NO. His demand is not disuaded by price increase.

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    Do the math

    By on

    I'd be willing to bet that doubling the toll would take no more than one-third the cars off the 'Pike.

    Net result: 33% more revenue and lots more people on transit. (We'd want to discourage using 9 and 20, but for now, let's allow that some people will use either, so not all 'Pike refugees head to transit.)

    Now, you might say I'm pulling numbers out of a hat. Fine, what do you think the decrease in 'Pike users would be if the toll were doubled? Please provide support for your estimate.

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    Please provide support for your estimate.

    Where's the support for your estimate that doubling the toll would take no more than one-third the cars off the 'Pike'?

    What is it you're trying to accomplish, get people off the Pike or get people from west of Boston to take public transportation? Or are we simply arguing about the elasticity of demand for Pike travel?

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    Exactly, Anonymous!

    By on

    That was my point, that some folks here are trying to accomplish (at least) two goals that appear to me to be incompatible.

    If ridership is already decreasing on The Pike, which it is by the 3.5% figure given, then raising tolls can't make up for the lost revenue, unless you believe that people who are apparently already seeking alternate routes won't continue seeking alternate routes.

    If you want to guess that enough people will stay on the road to increase revenues, you're as welcome to your guess as I am to mine, I suppose.

    Now, I'll tell you how you could make everything work. If you raise the cost of riding the T, AND make every road in Massachusetts a toll road, AND charge people for walking, you will have covered just about every base, and people will have to stay home if they don't want to fill the state's coffers and bring about The Greater Good. Of course, it would be easier to just declare a socialist republic and be done with it. As I said, it can't be done under a capitalist system.

    (Feel free to say whatever you wish without fear of response. I decided last night that I was fairly sick of trying to comment on any of the more serious threads here. I'm truly not fond of arguments, so I'll stick to making jokes and inane commentary on the more lighthearted stuff. At least for now, my inane commentary on the serious stuff will cease :-) )

    Suldog
    http://jimsuldog.blogspot.com

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    Please don't quit!

    By on

    These numbers are important. Let's figure out who's right.

    Pike usage decreased by 3.5% at the same time that gas increased about 33% (from $3.00 to 4.00). Don't get me wrong, 3.5% is a significant decrease, but it doesn't begin to approach the increased cost of driving.

    Now, the 33% increase hit drivers on all roads equally, but the 3.5% decrease suggests that there are still tons of 'Pike users who have not hit the point at which they are considering another alternative.

    Assuming a twenty mile commute and an average car, the cost of gas is probably approaching the cost of tolls as part of the total trip cost, so the experience probably tells us a fair bit about what would happen with a toll increase. Raise the tolls by a dollar and a relatively small portion of the current drivers will seek alternatives. Because there are no tolls on 9 or 20, they become alternatives, though there is not endless capacity on those two roads, so you'd end up trading one cost (the toll) for another (delay). And, you have the T.

    But, to lose any revenue benefit of a dollar increase, you'd have to get close to 50% of drivers abandoning the Pike. Based on the 3.5% decrease with a roughly equivalent increase in the price of gas, it just doesn't seem reasonable. They can't all use 9 or 20.

    I'd bet a dollar increase would end up creating a less than 10% decrease in Pike usage. But, for argument's sake, I'll stipulate to 33% decrease, which is way beyond the worst case scenario (again, keeping in mind our experience with the rise in gas prices). You net out more revenue than you started with. (And, by the way, the Pike becomes in some ways a better value because there's less traffic!)

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    Why I willingly pay to take the Pike in the afternoon

    By on

    No traffic lights and, in the winter, better plowing.

    What I don't get is why my commute from Chestnut Hill to Southborough on Rte. 9 in the morning is usually a breeze, while the afternoon drive in reverse is usually the sort of hellish experience that I only subject myself to when the Pike is backed up from 128 to 495 - what is it about Temple Street in Framingham and Eliot Street in Newton that is so wacked out in the afternoon.

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