Congestion pricing idea deserves a closer look

Published: 7/19/2010 12:05 AM

Two years ago, we expressed skepticism about the idea of congestion pricing on the region's expressways and tollways.

Our concerns were centered around the possibility you could end up paying more and still not save significant time getting to work or getting home. We also were concerned that higher costs would just put more vehicles on heavily traveled suburban roadways near the tollway.

We wondered whether studying the issue was necessary when other alternatives such as dedicated car-pool lanes and building the STAR suburb-to-suburb train line could be a focus of easing congestion.

To be sure, we still have our qualms about charging more to get through the morning and evening commutes. But, based on the results of a new study released this month, we do think further discussion is warranted.

The Metropolitan Planning Council, which released the details of the study that was commissioned by the Illinois Toll Highway Authority, estimates that today's morning rush hour traffic is expected to increase by more than 12 percent in the next 20 years. Afternoon traffic will be almost twice as bad by 2030 according to the study. We agree that new ways to ease congestion must be considered, especially when taking political reality into account that funds for expansion may not be forthcoming from Springfield or Washington.

The draft report estimated that driving from Route 31 in Elgin to Route 52/290 in Schaumburg on the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) during the morning rush would take 59 minutes at 12 mph in 2020 if nothing is done. Building another lane with congestion pricing, which would cost $3.27 to travel, would change that time to 12 minutes at 59 mph. If you didn't want to pay more for the dedicated lane, the travel time would still decrease to 23 minutes at 32 mph because other vehicles are using that lane.

We think the figures the council provided are interesting enough to look at this idea more closely. We like the idea of having a dedicated lane so those who can't afford to pay more to drive don't have to. The study said having that extra lane each way also would mitigate the potential of increased traffic on nearby roads.

The report also did a survey of drivers who overwhelmingly support paying more in tolls if there are assurances their commute wouldn't be slowed by traffic conditions. There also, however, are valid concerns. For example, raising toll costs during peak periods could be perceived as punishment for those without flexible work schedules. And the uncertainty that pricing would, in fact, reduce congestion in the greater Chicago area.

So we agree with those drivers who said test it and see. And let's continue to look at other states like Minnesota and California where congestion pricing is under way and should provide good data before we make a final decision.