Thursday, May 16, 2013

Op-Ed: Congestion and a Sliding Gas Pricing Scheme


You can’t seem to go a day without listening to the radio and not hearing about the traffic congestion issues in Portland (except for maybe the weekend). Congestion is a huge local transportation problem that has many hidden costs. Increased risks of accidents, fuel use, and loss of time are just a few issues relating to congestion. The problem of congestion lies in the ineffective or lack of transportation infrastructure, as well as an imbalance in supply/demand. The population growth in urban areas, while successful, has greatly contributed to this issue. There are two forms of congestion; recurrent and non-recurrent ( Recurrent congestion includes work commute (rush hour), shopping trips, and weekend vacations. Non-recurrent includes random events such as severe weather and crashes. Other issues that contribute to congestion includes limited funds available to further road development, general improvements, and maintenance.

Background on congestion in Portland:

Portland’s Travel Time Index is ranked the 13th worst in the country ( despite it being only the 23rd largest. In 2011 the population in Portland was 1,925,000 and the average driver spent approximately 146 hours in their car that year. Which is just under an entire week or 24 minutes a day. Total miles traveled daily in Portland is over 15 million miles on freeways and 14 million miles on arterials (Texas Transportation Institute Report). The cost of congestion for Portlanders that commute during peak hours is roughly $937 for the year or $1,130,000 total. Excess fuel consumed in Portland in 2011 was just under 25 million gallons with the average Portland commute taking 1.28 times longer than it should.

The Solution:

Much like with any other transportation issue, congestion requires a combination of solutions to be successful. Simply adding lanes or new roads may decrease congestion temporarily but ultimately that decrease will encourage more drivers, thus creating possibly even more congestion than before. As a result, the solution needs to decrease travel time without encouraging more drivers. To do this we need to get people off the road and keep them off. Inspired by the response to the oil crisis is the 70’s and the resulting limitations on when you could drive your car, I had an idea to introduce a sliding scale of gas prices. This is just one example of the many solutions that could be used to address congestion. Much like how some cities charge their water or electricity rates on a sliding scale, gas at the pump would be no different. Your rates would be based off your personal consumption of gas up until that point. The more you use during the defined period, the more you pay. This form of payment structure would help to address privacy concerning the proposed vehicle miles traveled rates, and allow for heavy users to help fund new infrastructure. The rate would be linked to your vehicle through a simple barcode or by entering the vehicles license plate. Through this pricing scheme, drivers would be more conscious of where they drive and how often. As a result, you would see an fewer trips and less congestion. This type of solution is comparable with the well known Congestion Pricing, which allows for real time charges based on levels of congestion. Some examples of this is varying parking rates or the addition of tolls. The sliding scale of gas prices is slightly different in that it is not based on congestion levels or times of the day but rather attempting to curb unnecessary driving as a whole, combining trips, or carpooling when possible.

For the sliding gas rates each vehicle will be given a predetermined sliding rate based on the cost of gas, the size of their family, their income level, as well as discounts they may be eligible for, or the traditional/reduced rates for families with lower incomes.

For a large fee, individuals could be able to opt out of the pricing structure. This would help individuals who rely on long distance travel for their income or business.


There are many possible issues that could stem from this one solution. This form of pricing would most likely cater towards middle to higher income individuals that can afford newer cars that have greater gas mileage. To address this issue, alternative options would need to be provided to allow for low income families and individuals to opt out of this pricing altogether and to ensure fuel efficient cars help to fund the roads they use. 

Ultimately, we want to encourage the continued purchase and use of fuel efficient and electric cars, so providing continued incentive for them is important. Allowing them a discount in the sliding rate will both result in savings over traditional vehicles yet also ensure they are contributing to roadway infrastructure that they are using.

The startup costs associated with this is unknown and could be huge. But savings in congestion costs and revenue derived from this pricing structure could within 5-10 years result in a net gain (my estimate). Savings would also be made by the reduction in congestion as future projects, meant to address congestion, may no longer be required. Sliding rates would also address the loss of revenue from current pricing schemes that have suffered partly under the newer more fuel efficient cars by providing a new source of revenue.

Dishonesty is a problem within every corner of the earth. Enforcement to ensure people are being honest is important, but overall I believe this to be a minor issue. There is usually only a small percentage of people that are dishonest or take advantage of situations. Drivers may also travel to neighboring areas that have not instituted this form of pricing.

Support for this type of project would be difficult. It would require extensive educational programs and public involvement. No one wants to pay more at the pump, but in the end drivers may become more conscious of their driving habits, have better incentives to buy more fuel efficient cars, and save money long term. There may also be the strong possibility of allowing for the initial price block to be below current gas rates which could help in its reception.



  1. Do you recommend this as a local, state or federal policy? If it weren't federal then I would just go down to Salem or up to Vancouver to buy gas. I-5 connects Mexico to Canada; what about all the vehicles just traveling through Portland but not originating or ending in Portland area?

    Also, would you suggest this as an alternative to the gas tax or as an addition?

  2. This is a really great idea. It could be hard to make sure it doesn't hit the lower-income demographic harder than the middle-high income demographic since they typically have easier access to alternative travel, but it looks like there would be attempts to mitigate that potential situation.

    I've always been curious about implementing a gas rationing system. It would probably be much less popular than the idea that you proposed (since it'd be un-American not to have unlimited access to ridiculous amounts of gasoline at cheap prices). But it could be based off a person's previous usage rates of gasoline (like you proposed) and perhaps people could sell any unused rations. There would still be some potential equity issues with a system like that but it could give people more of an incentive to use alternative options.


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