Is it time for congestion pricing on Boston area highways?

 Traffic stopped on intown side coming off the Zakim Bridge and going by the TD Garden, in downtown Boston.

 Traffic stopped on intown side coming off the Zakim Bridge and going by the TD Garden, in downtown Boston.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

Boston’s traffic congestion is legendary but who would have guessed that “as measured by the percentage of peak hour time spent in gridlock, Boston is the most congested city in America,’’ according to a report in A Better City? As James Aloisi, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary, noted in Commonwealth Magazine: That means that drivers in Metropolitan Boston spend “14 percent of our drive time not actually driving but stuck in traffic congestion.’’ This has a huge economic and environmental cost. INRIX, a data-collection company, estimates that the congestion costs the average driver $2,000 a year. This includes, Aloisi says, such direct costs as fuel and repairs and such indirect expenses as higher delivery costs. I would add the medical expenses related to stress.

The swelling number of Uber and Lyft cars are making it worse, as will the arrival of autonomous cars.

I agree with Mr. Aloisi that a very rational way to address this mess is to undermine the car-centric culture by adopting congestion pricing on major roads in the Boston area – an approach that some cities around the world are trying. This means tolling (with gantries) drivers at higher rates during rush hours, which would encourage many more people to take public transportation. This would also lead some employers and employees to adjust work schedules so that they commute when the roads are less crowded.


The money raised would go entirely to expand and otherwise improve mass transit, which of course would take many more people off the road. The technology – EZ-Pass, etc., exists. Some of the improvements could be accomplished fairly quickly, such as increasing the frequency of service on existing mass-transit lines and adding more train cars and buses.


Meanwhile, the MBTA has come up with a sort of reverse congestion pricing: It will offer a new $10 weekend pass that will let the agency’s commuter-rail passengers take unlimited weekend trips on the system this summer. The idea is to address commuter-rail underuse on weekends, and get more people who may have never, or very rarely, taken the train into the habit.

Of course, Boston’s congestion is nothing new, as I can attest from my experience as a summer-job commuter (working for a shipping company on the waterfront) from Cohasset in the late ’60s. The Southeast Expressway then was often called simply “The Distressway’’.  (My father had a heart attack in 1975 commuting to Boston from the South Shore on that dreadful road; he was able to drive to a hospital but died soon thereafter. I decided early on I wouldn’t become a commuter from the suburbs and have always lived in cities since 1970.)

Of course, metro Boston’s current congestion is to some extent the result of its prosperity. But eventually, its growing reputation for hellish highways will cause many mid-level workers to leave the area. Still, imagine how terrible it would be without the MBTA and how better it could be if the MBTA were expanded.