Congestion Charge for Downtown Chicago?

Heather Smith's picture

For those of us who want to promote public transportation and put more money into public transit I wouldn't have picked this headline but it did make the front page and seems to be sparking a great debate. The Sun Times front headline in huge letters proclaims
City's plan to drive you mad

CNU is going to be looking at congestion pricing and other demand management strategies at our annual Transportation Summit

Click on the link above for more information about the summit November 12-14, 2007 hosted by the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment.

Check it out and see what you think!


public reaction

The public reaction to congestion pricing is truly revealing.

"I don't like it. It sounds like it might be a lot. It sounds unfair. I have to pay a fee to come to the city to visit?" -- Cheryl Patterson, 45, personal shopper, Gary.

Drivers now have a sense of entitlement to the road -- they take it for granted. Why aren't people asking why we have to pay to ride the train? Driving is expensive and inefficient, and tax-payers foot a huge bill to subsidize the habit. Then people complain about funding transit, which is more efficient, more cost-effective, and better for the environment. This attitude reveals why we are also facing a transit funding crisis in Chicago right now.

If we want to expand public transportation in the US, we have to help put this in perspective for the public. We can't keep talking about "bail-outs" and "funding transit" -- this just plays into the existing attitudes about transit. Public transportation is an investment with fantastic returns -- better returns than throwing money at highways. It would be irresponsible to spend the returns from our transit system without reinvesting to keep it running strong.

Among other things, the congestion fee would help put things in perspective -- reconnecting drivers with the costs of their transportation choices.


Oddly enough, there seems to be a perception among many transit users that their fares pay for more than the entire cost of running the system. That's true for the few subway systems in the world which have crush-loads at 1 AM -- like New York City and Hong Kong -- but the real money in transit has always come from the property value of the urbanism that it creates. Transit creates value around it, while roads destroy that value (partially through severe congestion).

One of my favorite knee-jerk reactions about the charge is that it's "socialist." Now, let's think about this for a moment. Which is more socialist: government handing out something (road space, bread) absolutely free of charge to anyone willing to wait in line for it, or exchanging the goods for compensation at a market price for those willing to pay? Besides, the idea stems from none other than that great socialist luminary (and longtime south-sider) Milton Friedman.

chicago congestion charge

I pay a charge when I ride the el, why should vehicles get in almost free. Sure they pay gas tax, but that goes to build more roads rather than paying for the costs generated by vehicles taking up space and spewing pollution. London devotes all net congestion charge proceeds to support transit.

Vehicle user fees may get

Vehicle user fees may get more attention in Chicago's transit funding debate. With a crisis still looming and major service cuts on their way in a couple weeks, Illinois' elected officials can't agree on the proper source of funding. The current proposal, SB 572, would create a more sustainable funding through increased sales taxes and a real estate transfer tax. But the governor has sworn to veto any sales tax increase. A popular blog covering the transit crisis suggests user fees may be a viable alternative:


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