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Need Vs. Want in Highway Pricing

Samuel Staley
October 29, 2011, 7:19am

In reading an article by PolitiFact Florida on the Miami-Dade County High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes (October 28, 2011), I came across this discription of toll pricing:

"A word about the tolls: They are paid automatically via electronic transponders (SunPass) but are not charged to motorcycles, registered carpools of three or more passengers, registered hybrid vehicles, and school and transit buses. Anyone else itching to use the lane less traveled pays a fee based on "congestion pricing," meaning the toll value changes with traffic load. The rate increases with demand, so drivers pay more to use the express lane when they need it most. The higher the toll, the busier the lanes." [emphasis added]

Everything is fine in this description of tolling until the writer characterizes the rising toll prices as charging for something that is "needed." I understand the need to provide language that is common sense and plain, but this is a very unfortunate and misleading way to characterize tolling. Because the HOT Lanes use dynamic pricing, they change based on the preferences of travelers and their demand for faster travel. It's not based on "need," which is usually defined as something that is "necessary" or a "requirement." The HOT Lanes are an option, not a mandate; they do not deprive drivers of alternatives or the ability to travel. Rather, they provide an alternative that they can choose to use if they believe the benefits justify the expense. 

An interesting example of this is looking at the highest price the toll lanes have charged: $7.10 (or about $1 per mile) after a Miami Dolphins-New England Patriots professional football game. I seriously doubt many people were on the HOT Lanes because they "needed" to be on them. Rather, they chose to pay $7.10 for the reliable and guaranteed access they provided to points north of Miami at the time. Most often, the HOT Lane price is around $3.00 during rush hour. 


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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