Monday, November 5, 2007

Newton Charge II, why charge for driving?

To clarify, the so-far-not-TAB-endorsed Newton Charge would apply only to one set of drivers, those who pass through Newton on their way to somewhere else.

Why charge even them?

There are two important aspects of any fee for access:

  • Imposing on drivers a direct cost for driving
  • Discriminating among different drivers

Driving is an enormously subsidized activity that has all sorts of negative impacts on a community. We need to raise the cost of driving to both discourage driving and also to raise revenue that can be used to offset the negative impacts. A stiff gas tax would generally work to discourage driving, but it isn't an ideal mechanism to raise revenue to address those places most affected by traffic.

We should discriminate among different drivers, and the Newton Charge will.

There are, generally speaking, four kinds of traffic in Newton:

  • Wholly intra-Newton trips, those that begin and end in Newton—my house to City Hall and back
  • Trips by Newtonians that begin or end outside of Newton—My house to my friend's house in Brookline
  • Trips by non-Newtonians that end or start in Newton—The couple from Needham driving to Johnny's for Sunday brunch
  • Trips by non-Newtonians that start and end outside of Newton—the professional from Wellesley using Boylston Street to get to her job in Boston

The Newton Charge will only apply to the last set of trips, those that use Newton roads to pass from one town to another.

While there are subsets of the first three types of trip that might be worth discouraging—like unnecessarily driving kids to school—these are not generally trips that are problematic. Categories one and two involve Newton residents. They are entitled to use the roads they pay for. Category three involves non-Newton residents who are engaged with Newton. They are working, playing, worshiping, or spending in Newton. Those are not activities that we want to discourage.

But, why give the same access to our roads to people who are not either Newtonians or engaged in Newton? Why allow free travel through our city? Why allow pass-through drivers to add to the already too big traffic problem in our fair city? Among other things, the category four drivers compete with Newtonians or those engaged with Newton for limited capacity.

Look at this through the lens of the proposed development at Chestnut Hill Square. The developer expects the development will add 11,000 daily car trips to Boylston Street, all of which would fall into categories one through three. That many trips added to existing capacity is going to break the system. But, what if we were able to take some of the load out of the system by discouraging the category four drivers from driving through Newton and taking public transportation instead? We'd have more capacity available for trips by Chestnut Hill Square residents or for trips by Chestnut Hill Square shoppers, either of which is preferable to pass-through trips.

In future posts, the technical feasibility of the Newton Charge, its relationship to transit, and its regional impact.


Adam Gaffin said...

Rte. 9 is a state road, so please stop making it sound like my commuting on it is somehow wasting your valuable Newton property-tax payments.

As for charging people from out of town for using Newton roads, nice idea, but a) it'll never happen and b) if it does, how long before surrounding cities and towns start charging Newton for everything from mutual-aid fire calls to public library use (a Newton resident can use the Boston Public Library, gasp!), etc., etc.?

Sean Roche said...


It's not so much that you're commuting on Boylston Street (as I like to refer to it) wastes my property tax money for maintenance. The state repaves the road. Not often, but not on Newton's dime.

One problem is that the cost of a road is much higher than simply its upkeep. The traffic on the state road and the traffic traveling to the state road have a negative impact on the surrounding community.

Another problem is that the road-pricing scheme for metro-Boston is not rational. Why do people have to pay to drive through Newton on the MassPike, but not on Boylston Street?

As I'll get to, I'm fine with other towns and cities charging for through travel. Again, it costs me to drive through several towns on the MassPike, why shouldn't it cost me to get to Arlington through Cambridge?

As I'll get to in a later post, a rational road-pricing scheme through the metropolitan region might encourage better development and less car travel. If it costs me a couple of bucks to go out to Costco in Waltham, I might rethink the trip and shop locally.

The difference between my road-pricing proposal and mutual-aid? Mutual aid works to the benefit of participating cities. Likewise with shared library resources.

Free travel through cities works to the mutual detriment of all the cities involved.

Mike said...

Isn't Deval Patrick considering congestion pricing for Boston, depending on the outcome of the results of the whole NYC congestion-pricing thing? I don't think this will ever get done in Newton unless Boston does it first. It's just too controversial, and it's not something we're used to. People hate change around here. I like your idea though, and I'd support it.