Is it Time for Congestion Pricing?

Why are you here?

It’s not for the roads.

They’re not why our visitors come, either. 

We’re all here for a simple reason: this unique place. And protecting it can and should be the North Star guiding our decisions.

Indeed, “to protect and preserve our area’s ecosystem” are the first six words of the 2012 Comp Plan.

Why does the Comp Plan say we should protect our ecosystem?

Because our ecosystem is why we live here. 

It’s also the golden goose of our economy. Trash our ecosystem, and our economy goes with it.

And yet, some of our candidates for elected office are suggesting that we “challenge the status quo” of the Comprehensive Plan, which took a legion of concerned citizens and committed officials more than five years to develop.

Others are proposing that the best solution to our all-too-familiar traffic problems is to widen Highway 22 and 390, the way we’re doing with Highway 191 south of town.

And all are in support of creating a new road, the Tribal Trail Connector. 

The Comprehensive Plan is our collective vision for our community’s future. It’s a living document, one that must remain responsive to our needs while also respecting its central theme: that stewardship of our ecological resources is key to preserving our community character for this and future generations.

 I don’t believe we should widen Highway 22, or 390. I also don’t support building the Tribal Trail Connector. The costs to our ecosystem and wildlife habitat outweigh any potential congestion relief—relief that would likely be short-term at best. 

The more we widen our highways and build new roads, the more they’ll get used. It’s called the law of induced demand.

And once we build roads, they’re here to stay. We’ll never unbuild them. The fragmentation of our habitat that results is simply not worth it.

Proponents of widening our highways suggest that expansion should be accompanied by an array of “carrots” (incentives) such as High Occupancy Vehicle lanes to persuade more people to take public transport.

I too believe in incentives. Some proven ones that we should implement include:

  • subsidized transit costs for employees or residents
  • improvements to public transportation infrastructure, routes, and stops
  • traveler information tools that provide, at a glance, a snapshot of the current traffic congestion.

But carrots alone aren’t enough. 

If we are going to effectively address our traffic problems and avoid building new roads and widening our highways in the process, we need some “sticks”—penalties—as well.

As it so happens, there is a proven stick that presents our community with an opportunity to reduce traffic and raise revenue. It’s called “congestion pricing,” and it’s time we began exploring it as an option.

There are five entry points into Teton County: the roundabout at Hoback Junction; the base of the Pass in Wilson; the Moran post office; Colter Bay; and Ski Hill Road into Alta.

There are three entry points into the Town of Jackson: the “Y,” near Albertsons; the intersection of Highway 191 and High School Road near Smiths; and Highway 191 north of town near the Visitors Center.

We could charge visitors, at certain times of the year, to drive their cars through these entry points. This could be implemented at the county level by state statute, and at the town level with an ordinance.

To begin, a robust local marketing campaign would be used to educate residents and visitors on the system. This marketing campaign would be complemented with prominent signage at the entry points, both digital and analog, in advance of the system’s debut. 

The marketing campaign and signage would direct drivers to download an app, with which they could register their vehicles and set up an account. 

Teton County drivers and commuters from adjacent counties such as Sublette, Fremont or Teton County, ID, could register their vehicles for free or a nominal amount. Visitors could register their vehicles as well.

Upon completion of the marketing campaign, the congesting pricing system would begin.

As a driver passes through one of the entry points, a camera would take a photo of the vehicle’s license plate. 

If the vehicle were registered and had 22 or adjacent county plates, it would be good to go.

If the vehicle were registered from outside Teton or adjacent counties, a charge—say, $10—to enter would apply. This charge could be paid conveniently via the app.

If the vehicle had not been registered, the driver would have a grace period of 24 hours to pay the charge. 

After 24 hours, the vehicle’s owner would receive a citation in the mail for a much higher charge—say, $100.

If the citation were paid within 14 days, a 50% discount would apply.

If, after 28 days, the citation still hadn’t been paid, the charge would go up incrementally until it was paid.

Enforcement would be the same as it is for any other ticket, and done the same way anything is enforced across state lines.

A charge would apply to rental cars as well. This could be added on at the time of rental—as a daily charge or flat weekly fee—for greater convenience to the renter. 

There’d be a lot of flexibility in how, and how much, we could charge. 

Drivers could purchase a single entry or buy a weekly, monthly or annual pass.

The charge could also be changed according to demand, going in place from 7 a.m. — 9 p.m., for example, or only during the “100 days of summer” (Memorial Day to mid-September). 

At other times, it could be decreased or deactivated altogether.

Anyone who has driven in Colorado’s Front Range and returned home a few weeks later to find an envelope in the mail with a citation knows this isn’t science fiction. 

It’s not rocket science, either.

London, one of the biggest and densest cities on the planet, has used congestion pricing since 2006, to great effect: congestion has decreased 30% since the implementation, and generated $2.27B in revenue, all of which is reinvested in the city’s transportation system.

Singapore, Stockholm, Chicago, and Milan have implemented similar systems. New York’s is coming online in 2022. It’s projected to raise $1 billion annually.

We wouldn’t raise as much in our community, but with millions of drive-through visitors each year, we could certainly raise enough to pay back the up-front infrastructural costs necessary to implement such a system.

Once those costs were paid back, we could use the proceeds to improve START services, increase our bike share program, improve the Stilson parking lot—you get the idea.

Let’s be smart about our traffic problems. Congestion pricing would help decrease traffic and underwrite improvements to our transportation infrastructure. And it would help us avoid widening our highways and building new roads, which in turn would protect the golden goose of our ecosystem.

Because nobody lives here, or visits, for the roads.

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@ 2020 Christian Beckwith for Teton County Commissioner.