Tolling the Cross Bronx Expressway

By Felix Salmon
April 5, 2010
the most congested road in the US. It has an astonishing ability to instil deep-seated passions in drivers:

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Those who live close to it won’t be surprised to hear that the Cross Bronx Expressway is officially the most congested road in the US. It has an astonishing ability to instil deep-seated passions in drivers:

The Cross Bronx carries 184,000 cars a day, according to the State Department of Transportation, and Mrs. Moore’s intersection is congested 94 hours a week, with cars traveling at an average speed of 11.4 miles per hour at those times, according to Inrix.

Long portions of the expressway have no shoulder, so even minor accidents can snarl traffic for miles. The lighting is poor, and exit and entrance ramps are too short. Most of the road sits inside a trench, leaving commuters to stare at concrete walls, longing for the distraction of scenery. After too long the trench can feel like a crowded coffin…

Mr. Nolan, a traffic reporter for WPLJ-FM, has watched the Cross Bronx Expressway for 30 years…

“I absolutely, positively, completely, totally believe that that is the worst road in the metropolitan New York area,” Mr. Nolan said. “I can’t imagine there being a worse road anywhere.”

He has had holidays ruined by the Cross Bronx — he still gets angry describing the Thanksgiving dinner that was delayed for nearly two hours because relatives were stuck in Cross Bronx traffic.

“I go as far out of my way as I possibly can not to have to take the Cross Bronx,” he said. “I avoid it at all costs to the point of adding 20 or 30 miles to a trip I’m taking.”

The disastrous phenomenon being seen here is the way in which highways in general, and the Cross Bronx Expressway in particular, clog up dramatically once they reach a certain tipping point. A badly-designed highway might be able to carry say 3,000 cars per hour flowing freely — but the minute that traffic gets heavier than that, a jam appears, and the throughflow plunges to less than 1,000 cars per hour.

This is the kind of problem where a congestion charge is a blindingly obvious solution. Put a small toll on the Expressway, and more cars could travel on it, and they would travel faster. The trick is to keep the toll just high enough that those short entry and exit ramps don’t clog up; indeed, putting the toll simply on a few strategically-chosen entry ramps might suffice. You don’t need to toll every car on the road, you just need to hit the bottlenecks. (Research into cordon pricing, as seen in cities like London, shows that congestion is reduced significantly even when the cordon is porous: you don’t need to charge every single entry point into the city in order to have a significant positive effect.)

When Mike Bloomberg was trying to introduce a congestion charge in Manhattan, he got a huge amount of pushback from elected officials in the Bronx. It wasn’t particularly rational pushback: Bronx drivers would likely have benefitted from less through traffic from points north, while barely paying the toll themselves, since they rarely drive into downtown Manhattan.

Maybe a few tolls on the Cross Bronx Expressway would help to show the residents of that borough just how effective such measures can be. It’s got to be worth a try: make it so that for a few key on-ramps, you need an EZ Pass to get onto the road, and it will charge you a few bucks each time. If it works, Joe Nolan, for one, would surely thank you.

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