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.

12 comments

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“I can’t imagine there being a worse road anywhere.”

The Jackie Robinson Parkway, as it is now called, is worse–but much less heavily traveled.

Solution is simple: put the toll in Southbound around Exit 6 or 7 (where you enter the city). A lot of that backed-up traffic is drivers coming down from W’chester to the city, many of whom could use Metro North. That way the people on the main stretch across the Bronx (roughly, from the GWB crossing to the Bruckner) don’t get hit directly.

There’s already a toll around Exit 15 (iirc) on 95 Northbound, but nothing Southbound, so it’s not as if masses of people will suddenly start taking the Old Post Road instead. But at least the toll will cover some of the work that needs to be done.

Having lost a couple of hubcaps on the CBE, I can safely state that repairs to make the road a better place to drive alone would be worth the tolls.

Posted by klhoughton | Report as abusive

Tolling a public road like this suggestion is economic discrimination. Folks with money get to go fast, the poor get the shaft. Such is life in the public sector, but that isn’t how the government ought to operate.

This is explicitly not a use fee to fund the road – it is allowing the rich to get access to a better government through their money. All men are supposed to be created equal.

As a community we ought to simply build transportation infrastructure that works for everyone and fund it fairly.

Posted by patrickinmaine | Report as abusive

“”Tolling a public road like this suggestion is economic discrimination.”"
So is car ownership, only more so – especially as the poorest have no cars, while the next-poorest have clunkers that break down frequently and are fuel-inefficient. And, of course, at the highest end the wealthy have someone driving for them, or travel by helicopter, or purchase expensive property that obviates the commute.
The answer isn’t to abhor tolls, it’s to improve and to further subsidize public transit and facilities for helping the elderly, the disabled, and others needing special transportation options – perhaps to do so using toll revenue.

Posted by WarrenTerra | Report as abusive

patrickinmaine: As someone who lives in Maine, where most people no matter how poor have cars and most roads are uncongested (excepting a bit of summer-time traffic on the coast), you simply have no idea what real traffic is or what the needs of the poor in the Bronx are. I understand, as someone who moved from New Hampshire to NYC recently. First of all, anyone who’s truly poor in the Bronx doesn’t have a car, because there’s no need to own one, traffic is terrible, and public transportation takes you anywhere poor people need to go. Secondly, major roads here are nearly unusuable for their intended function of efficient travel from A to B for large blocks of the week. This state of affairs does not benefit the hypothetical lower middle class driver who loses work time and family time to commuting; to the contrary, it harms him or her greatly. A toll would not deter necessary commuting – say a contractor who drives to different jobs in various areas north of Manhattan – it would be a cost of doing business that he would pass on to this customers. Tolls exist to deter tourists, people who could take public transportation, and random idiots from using roads that take you through a major metropolis because they look shorter on the map or are “free”, contributing to congestion that makes the roads unusable.

As Felix correctly points out, most of these roads could handle more cars if there were fewer cars on them (I know this seems paradoxical but it isn’t if you think about the irrationalities of drivers in congested regions and the impact on the fluid dynamics of the traffic jam). For instance, behavior such as refusing to merge onto the highway and then cutting off cars that merged ahead of you with much braking and yelling is a lot less common if the traffic on the road is managed to a reasonably flowing level where you can smoothly use the passing lane for this function. To the extent that you have to displace some poorer people from the road to achieve this state, the answer as stated above is better public transportation. Example: if the city of NY would build subway lines that run directly and precisely to the airports from all major subway hubs, people wouldn’t take cars to the airport. Taking the subway to Astoria and then riding a bus to LGA or taking the only Brooklyn subway line that DOESN’T hit Atlantic Terminal and then switching to a separate airport train to JFK are not satisfactory options. Of course the cab is also a total crapshoot because of the aforementioned highway problems that extend to the BQE, but at least when it fails you’re sitting in traffic with a pro rather than rolling your luggage through Astoria in the rain looking for a bus that may or may not turn up.

Posted by najdorf | Report as abusive

“patrickinmaine: As someone who lives in Maine,[..] you simply have no idea what real traffic is or what the needs of the poor in the Bronx are.”

More simply – I’m originally from NY, have lived in urban areas most of my life, and am quite familiar with the cross bronx. I also never specifically mentioned the poor of the Bronx area, I spoke of all American citizens.

I don’t presume to know your background. I ask that you please return the courtesy. Even if your assumptions about my background had been correct I object to your assertion that they should render my opinion on public policy irrelevant. My post was about appropriate use of governmental power which should provide the framework for any particular public transportation proposal, including the one in the original post.

The question is not whether the road in question is broken (it is.), or whether congestion pricing might improve throughput (it might.). Nor is the question really limited to this particular stretch of highway. Tiered quality of government service is not an appropriate function of a democracy. Go do it in the private sector.

The government should not literally construct a less mobile class by offering a higher quality, but tarriffed, mode of service over critical public infrastructure based on the ability to pay.

If the public wants more effective roads, boats, trains, planes, or busses then we need to step up and build them on an equal opportunity basis.

Instead this congestion based proposal wants to take a road that was paid for by the government and available on an equal opportunity basis and change that to give out the choice driving slots to those with the highest ability to spend and either exclude or push to 2 AM the less affluent citizens.

We’re not talking about raising funds to build a road through tolls. We’re talking about making a broken road into a working road that is no longer usable by some of the people that had an equal shot at it before. And I’m saying that a government that makes such distinctions based on economic means is certainly not providing equal protection to its citizens.

It might even be more than just the poor that get shafted. Congestion pricing is basically an auction – you need to keep driving up the price until people drop out otherwise it doesn’t work. Why don’t we just mark the left hand lane only for friends and family of goldman sachs now?

It is very appropriate to differentiate between proper goals of the private and public sector. The former might include maximal aggregate efficiency and financial return, while the latter could reasonably be the general welfare of everyone. Government powers and responsibilities are inherently different – consider the power of eminent domain and balance that against the responsibility of equal protection in the public sector.

Posted by patrickinmaine | Report as abusive

I apologize for the assumptions. I still object to the idea that toll roads harm poor people, particularly in a place like the Bronx that has public transportation and many poor people without cars. Reducing traffic would of course also reduce noise and pollution in their neighborhoods, which tend to be precisely those that the highway passes (due to the enlightened government policies of the past).

If you’re concerned about the economics it would be easy to set up a program for reduced-cost or free EZ-PASS transponders for people who meet income/need requirements. But to say that as a general principle we shouldn’t have tolls because poor people might have to pay them is loony inside a capitalist framework where people already pay the government for many services. You’re proposing a radical egalitarianism which goes beyond any existing idea of equal protection. I can see why all taxpayers would bear the burden of public K-12 education, since it’s a public good that would be hard to fund otherwise (and is protected as a right in many state constitutions), but why not have drivers fund a road? There’s no constitutional right to cars/driving.

Posted by najdorf | Report as abusive

PatrickinMaine- from your vantage point in Maine you probably don’t know that at the west end of the Cross Bronx is a haven of rampant discrimination known as the George Washington Bridge. Appallingly, it costs $8 to cross it eastbound. Not everyone has $8. What, oh what will we do?

Posted by johnhhaskell | Report as abusive

“Folks with money get to go fast, the poor get the shaft.”

That’s called capitalism, my friend. Welcome to America, comrade patrickinmaine! Our highways are the single biggest socialist enterprise in the country – with disastrous results. It especially amuses me as Republicans call Obama “socialist” while continuing to pile up obscene subsidies for highways. Our system is just like the economy of Soviet Russia, with all the associated ills – overuse and long lines (congestion), overpayment and corruption among government contractors, etc.

It makes absolutely no sense that Americans associate better service with higher price in everything EXCEPT for highways, which are supposed to be completely egalitarian and where everyone is “equal.” No matter that there are millions of people out there who either can’t afford a car or don’t want one – true socialists like patrickinmaine say everyone MUST drive and pay nothing for it!

“Pay for use” is a much more rational system which we should switch to for highways. It works in large parts of the US economy, and it should work in the highway system as well. You pay more – you get better service. The gas tax used to do that, but it is a blunt tool and our politicians failed to keep it up with inflation.

The poor can (and should) take the train or bus. Highways should not be for everyone, but only for those who can afford to travel in comfort and style. That’s why we need tolls. And by bringing roads back out of socialism, we solve all kinds of society ills – underfunded public transit, obesity, pollution. The market is the best way when it comes to highways, pure and simple.

Posted by boris256 | Report as abusive

Patrickinmaine’s second comment is rhetoric gone wild. Gorgeous rhetoric, to be sure. (“Why don’t we just mark the left hand lane only for friends and family of goldman sachs now?”) As a Lefty, if I didn’t know anything about transportation, I’d be with patrick all the way.

But I do know a bit — enough, at least, to know what residents of London and Stockholm have learned, to their delight: if even a small fraction of the revenues are provisioned for public transit improvements, road pricing produces net benefits for poverty-level urban dwellers as well as well-off residents. The time savings for bus passengers alone easily negate the tolls paid by the urban poor.

Well-designed congestion pricing works. That is, it creates enormous time savings and few disbenefits. (The only losers tend to be people who drive a lot and have low values of time — a combination characterizing very few New Yorkers.)

Patrick’s solution — “If the public wants more effective roads, boats, trains, planes, or busses then we need to step up and build them on an equal opportunity basis.” — has been tried for a century. What defeats it every time is “induced demand” — — the phenomenon by which the ability to travel faster on new highway lanes engenders new and longer trips. Isn’t it time to try something else?

Posted by Komanoff | Report as abusive

Re Subsidies for the poor – they really don’t work to offset the unfairness of a congestion pricing scheme.

Congestion pricing is meant to force people out of the pool in order to cap demand – that is literally its purpose and the reason it might create a better functioning road. I hope that part isn’t controversial. If you turn around and subsidize the folks you pushed out of the pool (i.e. with a discounted rate for them) you’re right back where you started in terms of demand. Rate subsidies are appropriate tools in conjunction with flat user fees, but not congestion fees.

It is a little better if instead of subsidizing transponders you invest in other methods of public transportation (train, bus, et al) but that creates a fundamental divide – those entitled to drive the road and those given nicer subways. In other words: Separate but equal. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think the government should be creating services that way.

If the private market would like to build other roads, I have no inherent problem with that. That wasn’t the subject of the blog post – the subject involved taking a public asset open to all and by defacto closing it to some, based on wealth, in order to improve the road for those left on it. I think that’s wrong.

Posted by patrickinmaine | Report as abusive

So, patrickinmaine, you would oppose every increase in the subway fare on the simple grounds that it makes it less available to the poor? No further thought necessary?

Posted by niveditas | Report as abusive

new york is a sewer, the problem isn’t the cbe, it’s the attitude, developed over generations, of new yorkers to push, shove and elbo their way to the front! most times for no obvious gain to themselves even. they can’t help themselves….ignorant, anxious, and cruel…WILL NOT GIVE ONE INCH TO ALLOW A MOTORIST TO CHANGE LANES IF NECESSARY! everyone is not from nyc, and therefor they do not know the layout of exits as locals do….I often wonder if any ny local motorists would piss on me if I were on fire…I think not! ONE WAY!! caused their own problem, now deal with it. I travel the east coast and have never witnessed such cold, ignorant, self serving people in my life . PERIOD ! maybe appointing a team of law enforcement officers, that focus on ticketing and towing vehicles of these ignorant pushy almost non humans would help best

Posted by truckerlarry | Report as abusive