Washington’s Metro Could Use a Dose of Congestion Pricing

As a frequent rider of Washington, D.C.’s metro system, I’ve been more than inconvenienced by the rush hour traffic that has forced me to miss trains. Usually this occurs while I’m switching trains at Gallery Place or Metro Center. The solution, of course, is congestion pricing–raising fares so that the trains run efficiently and at maximum capacity. I make this case in today’s (Sunday 10 January) Washington Post.

The key to the DC Metro’s (and transit more generally) future financial viability is adopting congestion pricing. The key, I write, is to “charge the right fare, for the right trip, at the right time through demand-based pricing.” More specifically:

“Metro already uses a variable pricing system in a limited way. Fares vary based on distance and whether or not it is rush hour; express buses charge more than local ones. But these measures are not enough to optimize the system’s performance. Much more could be achieved by using the latest technology.

“Metro can take pricing to the next level with demand-based fares focused on ensuring peak performance for both rail and bus. The key policy change would be to identify which routes are congested and authorize pricing levels by route and time of day, rather than mode.

“The opportunities are particularly ripe for rail, which accounts for two-thirds of system trips and nearly 80 percent of passenger miles. An average 10 percent increase in revenue from the rail side of Metro alone could fill the $40 million gap.”

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is facing a $40 million deficit. Raising fares across the board could actually make matters worse because it would be a short-term, stop gap measure, not a solution that focuses on long-term sustainability. Dynamic, variable fares, on the other hand, focus on charging based on willingness to pay. Thus, the overcrowded trains are also a potential revenue opportunity.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.