Two outlines of a Congestion Charge District for Boston

In today’s exercise in transportation blogging, I’m writing about congestion charging. Boston is an old and congested city, and suffers a great deal from air, water, and noise pollution as a result of automobile traffic. Unlike congestion pricing, which is intended to speed up freeway traffic by using a market mechanism to discourage car travel at peak times, a zone-based congestion charge is a mechanism to directly compensate communities for the environmental and social externalities caused by car and truck traffic. Both structures could have a place in Boston’s transportation picture, and have been implemented elsewhere, but congestion pricing has significant externalities of its own (by encouraging traffic to shunpike, that is, to shift to un-priced alternate routes and thereby spread the congestion around in space as well as in time), so the approaches are complementary.

Here I am presenting an outline of congestion charging for Boston — in two different senses. First of all, I’ve made a Google Map showing one possible congestion zone. I chose these boundaries based on my experience living here and an intuition about which communities might or might not want to be part of a congestion charging scheme. Of course, if a city like Newton, Saugus, or Quincy sees the inner core cities reaping substantial benefits, both financial and in traffic reduction, they might well choose to join in the future. I could easily see, for example, Newton wanting to include the Route 9, Washington St., and Highland Ave. corridors in a congestion zone, or Saugus might want to get some benefit from all those cars coming south on Route 1 (which would hit this proposed congestion zone boundary at the Route 60 rotary in Revere), but there has to be some sort of compactness or contiguity restriction on the zone, because otherwise the outer suburbs join and establish a zone that includes Route 128 but none of their own local streets. The zone that I’ve drawn is about 75 square miles — much larger than the London congestion zone, for example, which was the world’s first (and so far most successful) congestion charge at only eight square miles. Secondly, I am presenting a sketch of an actual legislative proposal which would create a congestion charging district for Boston, give it the authority to collect the charge and direct MassDOT to cooperate in implementing it — immediately on the existing toll roads, and within three years everywhere else.

I don’t have good figures for how many monitoring points would be required to achieve a reasonable coverage ratio given local travel patterns. Obviously just getting the toll roads and tunnels gives you a substantial head start — on the order of 150,000 vehicles per weekday — but non-toll freeways such as I-93, US 1, and Storrow Drive would need sufficient coverage (using the E-ZPass gantry-and-camera method already used for All Electronic Tolling). Other arterial roads and potential shunpike routes would also need coverage: that includes all of the other parkways, Arsenal St., Commonwealth Ave., Beacon St., Blue Hill Ave., Boylston St., Concord Ave., Mystic Ave., Mass. Ave., McGrath and O’Brien Highways, Cambridge St. (Boston and Somerville), Chestnut Hill Ave., and pretty much every street named Broadway. In some areas where long-term or overnight parking is prohibited, additional coverage could be achieved by using license-plate recognition data generated for parking enforcement. Assuming a baseline charge of five dollars a day (about a third less than London’s), with no fee abatements and 200,000 vehicles subject to the charge, that could amount to a total revenue base of $240 million a year before collection costs; in my formula, half of that goes directly to the MBTA and the other half is divided among the cities and towns in the district according to a complicated (but pre-existing) state-aid formula.

Sketch of proposed law

1. Definitions

Adjoining City: any municipality contiguous to the District which votes to join the District in accordance with section 2

Administrator: the Administrator of the Division of Highways in the Department of Transportation

Base Fee: the nominal daily fee charged to all non-exempt vehicles that operate on public roads within the Zone, prior to application of any fee abatement schedules established under sections 10 and 11

Board: the governing body of the District as established in section 3

Charge: the congestion charge assessed on vehicles operated in the Zone as described in this chapter; the Charge is liquidated damages collected on behalf of the residents of the District as compensation for traffic congestion and associated air, noise, and water pollution, and is neither a fine nor a toll

Core City: any of the cities of Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Revere, Somerville, and Watertown, and the towns of Brookline and Winthrop

Coverage Ratio: the ratio of the number of vehicles accurately identified as operating within the Zone and paying the Charge to the average number of vehicles estimated to be operating within the Zone on an ordinary business day

District: the Boston Area Congestion Mitigation District, a municipal corporation with a distinct legal personality from the Commonwealth and any of its general-purpose municipalities

Exempt Vehicle: a vehicle which exempt from the Charge under sections 12 and 13

General Manager: the chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority

Secretary: the Secretary of Transportation

Target Coverage Ratio: the goal established by the Board for the Coverage Ratio under section 7

Zone: the Boston Area Congestion Charging Zone as established by the Board under section 6

2. The District shall consist of the Core Cities and any Adjoining City that elects to join by an affirmative vote of its governing body, provided that an Adjoining City which is not directly contiguous to a Core City may only join by consent of the Secretary and a majority of the Board.

(Insert usual financial obligations and “sue or be sued” language here.)

[Note: this opens up membership to Newton, Waltham, Belmont, Arlington, Winchester, Melrose, Saugus, Quincy, Milton, Needham, and Dedham, which gives them a say on the board, and the opportunity for resident abatements of fees if such a scheme is established, but under section 15 they are not entitled to any of the revenue unless the congestion charging zone actually encompasses some of their residents.]

3. The District shall be governed by a board consisting of five members appointed by the Mayor of Boston with the approval of the Boston City Council and one member appointed by governing body of each of the remaining Core Cities and each of the Adjoining Cities. The members of the Board shall not be compensated for their service but shall be reimbursed for any expenses incurred while engaged in Board business.

4. The Board shall include as non-voting observers the Secretary, the General Manager, and the Administrator, or such subordinates as each shall designate. The Secretary shall have the casting vote should the voting members of the Board be equally divided on any question.

5. The Board shall elect its own chair, and otherwise operate according to [insert reference to whatever state law usually governs such boards]. [Insert usual terms allowing the board to hire and pay professional and administrative staff and participate in the state pension and benefits plans.] [Insert transitional terms directing MassDOT to provide staff to the board until the district is earning revenues and able to forward-fund its own staff salaries.]

6. The Board shall fix and establish a contiguous Boston Area Congestion Charging Zone within the boundaries of the District, and shall determine a base congestion fee (the “Base Fee”) to be charged on a daily basis to motor vehicles operating on public roads therein, within two calendar years of the District’s establishment, and shall review the boundaries of the Zone and the Base Fee not more than every three years thereafter.

7. The Board shall establish a Target Coverage Ratio and shall consult with the Administrator and independent experts on the most effective means to achieve it. The Target Coverage Ratio shall increase by not less than five percent annually until it reaches ninety-five percent, and at the discretion of the board once a Coverage Ratio of ninety-five percent is actually achieved. The Board shall engage an independent expert to estimate and make a public report on the Coverage Ratio annually.

8. The Administrator shall, in consultation with the Board, implement technological means for observing vehicles entering into and moving about the Zone, identifying their registered owners, and collecting the Charge from those owners, including without limitation vehicles operating on the Massachusetts Turnpike, Tobin Bridge, and all other state highways passing into, over, or through the Zone. Such means may include photographic recording of registration plates, whether by fixed or mobile apparatus.

The Administrator shall develop a signage program to ensure that all vehicles entering the Zone are informed of the Charge and given sufficient opportunity to avoid the Zone if they so choose. The implementation shall be completed on existing toll facilities within 26 calendar months after the establishment of the Board, and within three years thereafter on such other state highways and municipal arterial roads as are necessary to reach the Target Coverage Ratio. The Administrator shall net the Department’s operating expenses against Charges collected from vehicle owners and due to the District. The Board may agree with member municipalities to perform some or all of the implementation and/or collection if it determines this would reduce costs or operating expenses, or is necessary to meet the Target Coverage Ratio.

9. The Department of Conservation and Recreation shall cooperate with the Administrator in locating such means on urban parkways administered by said Department.

10. The Board may, at its discretion, establish a schedule for abatement of the Charge for vehicles registered within the District, not to exceed fifty percent of the Base Fee, provided that all residents of the District shall be treated equally.

11. The Board may, at its discretion, establish a schedule for abatement of the Charge for vechicles owned or operated by low-income individuals and disadvantaged business enterprises, not to exceed twenty-five percent of the Base Fee, and in so doing shall use pre-existing means of identifying such individuals as approved by the Secretary of Administration and Finance.

12. Emergency vehicles, vehicles registered to the Commonwealth or any of its instrumentalities or municipalities, and United States government vehicles shall be exempt from the Charge.

13. Paratransit vehicles, vehicles adapted for use by the disabled, and buses capable of seating more than 15 passengers shall be exempt from the Charge regardless of ownership and whether or not they are in service. Construction vehicles shall be exempt to the extent that they are operating within one-quarter mile of a fixed construction location and using public roads only incidentally to the process of construction, but not when being transported to or between construction sites. Vehicles which are parked on public roads are exempt from the Charge insofar as they are not moved, or are operated for only such distance as is required under municipal regulations relating to snow and ice removal or street cleaning.

14. Except as provided in sections 9 through 13 inclusive, all vehicles shall be charged the same congestion fee for every twenty-four-hour period during which they are operated on public roads within the Zone.

15. The Board shall establish procedures for collecting congestion fees from rental vehicles, taxis, and Transportation Network Companies, and for periodic audits of thereof to ensure compliance.

16. The boundaries of the Zone, the Base Fee, and any fee abatement schedules shall not be subject to review under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.

17. The Charges collected by the District, less the District’s expenses, debt service, and reasonable reserves, shall be paid out quarterly in arrears as follows: (a) fifty percent shall be remitted directly to the MBTA, and (b) fifty percent shall be paid to each municipality in the District in accordance with the Chapter 90 formula; provided, that each Adjoining City’s share shall be prorated according to the proportion of that Adjoining City’s population residing within the Zone, and further provided, that the funds remitted to each municipality are considered unrestricted and may be used for any lawful purpose.

18. The Board may, with unanimous consent of the Core Cities, alter the formula in section 17(b).

19. The MBTA shall dedicate the funds remitted under section 17(a) to programs tailored to benefit residents of the District, including without limitation capital improvements, service expansion, and fare mitigation.

20. The District may accept income from other sources, whether private, government, or commercial, to the extent otherwise permitted by law, which shall be distributed in accordance with section 15. Such sources may include development impact fees assessed by municipalities within the District, but the District is not authorized to directly assess such fees.

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