Policy Study

Congestion Relief Toll Tunnels

Executive Summary

Changing urban land-use patterns have reduced the importance of traditional downtowns as the origin and destination of numerous vehicular trips. Much traffic on downtown-area freeways seeks merely to get past downtown, thereby worsening the level of congestion for those seeking access to downtown.

A number of European cities have begun to develop a new type of transportation facility: congestion-relief toll tunnels in downtown areas. These projects appear to be economically feasible largely or entirely from premium-price tolls paid by users. Hence, they are being developed by private consortia, operating under long-term franchises from government. Other keys to the feasibility of such projects are peak/off-peak pricing structures (congestion pricing), nonstop electronic toll collection, and restriction of use to auto-size vehicles only (to reduce tunnel dimensions and therefore capital investment).

Preliminary analysis indicates that congestion-relief bypass tunnels for downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco would be economically feasible as private business ventures, if developed along European lines. Similar approaches might be applied to other controversial freeway projects in both cities, and to restructuring Boston’s huge and controversial Central Artery/Tunnel project.

Congress has already authorized public-private partnerships of this type, permitting private capital and private owner/operation to be used, both for new projects and to rebuild existing highway, bridge, and tunnel facilities. Six states and Puerto Rico have enacted private-tollway legislation under which such projects could be developed and operated.

This type of project is likely to be seen as politically feasible, since it offers a way to make significant transportation improvements in impacted downtowns with little or no public funding. While transit proponents may oppose the construction of toll tunnels, highway users are likely to support such projects, and some environmental groups may support this method of implementing congestion pricing in urban areas, because of its potential for reducing air emissions.


Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.