A rush-hour tax on urban drivers

President Bush wants to give $305 million to cities and states to come up with ways to charge drivers for traveling at peak traffic. Such "congestion pricing" has worked in a few cities such as London and Singapore. But can it succeed with toll-averse Americans?

A rush-hour fee would not be aimed simply at easing the commuting hassles of only those workers willing or able to pay a few extra dollars a day. It's a scheme with wider benefits, such as reduced fuel consumption, less air pollution, and better efficiency for business.

In 85 of the most congested urban areas in the United States, drivers had to endure 3.7 billion hours of traffic delays in 2003, the US Department of Transportation estimates. But beyond their frustrations, their idled driving also wasted 2.3 billion gallons of fuel and spewed millions of tons in greenhouse gases. In all, congested highways cost the US about 2 percent of its GDP.

That Mr. Bush has now jumped on the Al Gore bandwagon of wanting to impose costs on individuals for their contributions to global warming shows that this administration might be open to many Kyoto-like measures in areas where fossil fuel use needs to be curtailed.

In fact, his administration is also reportedly looking at a congestion levy on airlines to help spread out flights during heavy-traffic periods. That would likely raise air fares but also reduce the wait time and fuel loss during takeoff and landing delays. Such steps could lead to even more taxes on carbon-based fuels, forcing more investment in conservation and alternative energies, while altering American lifestyles.

Democrats should grab this initiative in the president's proposed 2008 budget to help promote a measure of bipartisanship around global warming. And both parties would gain by supporting efforts already underway in a few US cities to try to use traffic fees to influence people's driving habits and choice of residences.

Many US mayors have eyed London's success since 2003 in charging about $16 for drivers to enter the city at peak times. Traffic delay in the British capital is down about 17 percent and the use of mass transit is up about 16 percent. One expert calls this a "virtuous cycle."

Elected leaders also need to revisit the need for higher taxes on gasoline, urban parking, and other areas where the use of gas-guzzling vehicles needs to be curbed. Bush has proposed new ways to force better fuel-efficiency from carmakers. The public may be ready to accept such higher costs as they experience more erratic climate change and hear of projected temperature rises in the coming decades.

Advances in electronic toll-taking should make it easier to collect rush-hour fees, although some human toll collectors may still be needed. And governments will need to improve mass transit and prevent toll- avoiding drivers from clogging smaller streets. Oregon is experimenting with a device in vehicles that would record all road use and charge an owner a fee based on miles driven.

US officials say peak-traffic tolls of less than $3 would bring big changes to the most crammed highways. If implemented well, these minimal fees could start a maximum shift away from America's oil addiction and toward a cooling of the atmosphere.

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