Editor’s Note: Civil Beat reporter Marcel Honore’s transportation column, “Wayfinding,” offers a street-level look at the challenges of getting around Oahu and the neighbor islands. If you want to share your story ideas or experiences, send an email to mhonore@civilbeat.org

Normally I don’t see a lot of strongly worded Facebook posts from childhood friends fuming about obscure transit policies.

So I was surprised when a former schoolmate recently posted a news article on “congestion pricing” — the fees some cities charge for driving during rush hour in order to help lighten traffic. It might be coming soon to our hometown of Los Angeles.

“This,” my old schoolmate declared, “is bullshit.” 

Then one of her friends chimed in with the first comment: “It works though, and LA needs a solution.” 

I was kind of impressed. That brief social media exchange perfectly summed up the wonky debate over congestion pricing.

But it got me thinking. Could the concept help here on Oahu, where drivers endure especially brutal commutes to and from the west side?

Better yet, could revenues from congestion pricing help fund rail?

Approaching Aiea Eastbound early morning commute traffic1.
Could politicians ever sell the idea of “congestion pricing” — essentially a toll on driving downtown during rush hour — on Oahu? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Politically, it’s a tough sell. Drivers already pay steep registration fees, plus insurance, maintenance and fuel to use their cars. With congestion pricing, they would have to pay even more just to drive during rush hour, getting less gridlock in return. In London, for example, drivers since 2003 have paid a daily rate of about $16 to access the heart of the city 7 a.m. to 6 p.m on weekdays.

However, the pricing scheme in London has also been a big success. Car traffic plummeted nearly 40 percent in the program’s first 11 years. Public transit use spiked. London collects about $200 million annually from congestion pricing for transportation improvements. Now, LA transit leaders are looking to do it, too.

“People often think, ‘Oh, you’re just gouging us,'” Asha Weinstein Agrawal, education director at the San Jose-based Mineta Transportation Institute, said of congestion pricing. But the idea is to set the fee high enough that “it shifts enough people off the road to prevent a standstill.”

Often, eliminating just 5 to 10 percent of the cars during rush hour makes a big difference in the commute, Agrawal added.

No City Has Taken The Plunge Yet

On Oahu, the H-1 continues to be the main lifeline for commuters. On an average weekday, nearly 250,000 vehicles travel the freeway through Aiea. How many of those trips occur during the peak hours varies day to day.

As it turns out, Honolulu leaders have considered congestion pricing before. Briefly.

In 2007, then-councilman Charles Djou introduced a resolution urging city officials to study whether it would work.

That was during the height of the island’s rail debate, and the idea was specifically floated as a cheaper alternative to the elevated transit project being built today.

“It did come up in the concept of rail,” Djou recalled in a recent interview. “The concept was to more efficiently use our road system … and encourage people to use our mass transit system,” meaning TheBus.

Charles Djou Mayor candidate. 16 june 2016
Charles Djou, a former Honolulu councilman and member of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, in 2016. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The idea is, if you take this money with congestion pricing, you return it back” in the form of reduced bus fares, road improvements and other benefits without having to increase the local gas tax, he said.

The council adopted Djou’s resolution, which called for the Department of Transportation Services to identify potential “congestion zones.”

It didn’t get much farther than that.

“Charles Djou is wrong and I will veto that measure if it comes to my desk,” then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann said when dismissing the idea in 2008. “You cannot do congestion pricing when you have not provided enough options or opportunities for people to travel in and out of the city. This is the wrong time to broach it.”

Now, the city’s current chief executive — who once served as Hannemann’s managing director and then bested Djou in the most recent mayoral race — is open to the concept.

“We’ve talked about congestion pricing. We talked about also how do you maybe incentivize instead of penalize?” Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in a recent interview with Civil Beat.

By “we” Caldwell means staff in the city’s new Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency. The office is “looking at a whole bunch of things,” he said, to curb greenhouse gas emissions on Oahu. That includes eliminating the extra fuel that’s wasted when thousands of cars get stuck in traffic.

“It absolutely works,” Caldwell said of congestion pricing.

But he added: “It’s fraught with political problems.”

“It can sometimes impact the very people that are just struggling to make ends meet — those women who do housekeeping in hotels in Waikiki driving in from the Ewa Plain and they have no choice but to leave when it’s peak congestion,” Caldwell said. “If we can find some fairness, some way to create equity for those … who can’t afford it” then the idea might work on Oahu.

In LA, city leaders have suggested free or nearly free public transit as the suggested trade-off for congestion pricing.

For a similar model to work on Oahu, TheBus would need to provide commuters a strong alternative to driving, Agrawal said.

Caldwell suggested considering exempting those hardest-hit by the pricing scheme, as well as drivers who switch to electric vehicles. However, if  you gradually add exemptions then “it all falls apart,” Agrawal said. The fees become that much higher for those who aren’t exempt.

Currently, some major U.S. cities try to manage gridlock with tolls and express lanes. None uses a bona fide congestion pricing scheme for all vehicles to pass through certain areas during rush hour, Agrawal said. But the idea is gaining traction — not just in Los Angeles but also San Francisco and New York.

“I still think this concept is worth taking a serious look at,” Djou said recently. “I think it’s innovative, creative policy-making — something sorely lacking at the city right now.”

Despite their many policy differences, neither Djou nor Caldwell thought the pricing scheme would be the best way to fund rail once the elevated transit line starts running.

“We’ve talked about congestion pricing. We talked about also how do you maybe incentivize instead of penalize?” — Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell

Caldwell said it made more sense to use those dollars instead to help convert the city’s bus fleet to electric power, while Djou said “this rail transit project has taken enough from the people.”

The city still doesn’t know exactly how it will pay for rail’s annual operations and maintenance.

“Theoretically this can all be done, but the devil is in the details,” said Panos Prevedouros, who chairs the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Hawaii Manoa. 

Prevedouros supports congestion pricing. It could take hold in Hawaii with the growing local concern over climate change and interest in ways to reduce its impacts, he said.

“It’s a win-win,” Prevedouros said. “Put some costs to the congestion.”

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