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Houston Shot Down A Commuter Fee, But What Was It?

By Urban Reform | Jun 24, 2019

At last week’s marathon Houston city council meeting to consider the $5.1 billion fiscal year 2020 budget, one council member attempted to tack on an amendment that would have opened the door for a “commuter fee” better known as congestion pricing.

Council Member Martha Castex-Tatum (District K) offered the amendment, with the full support of Mayor Sylvester Turner, and it would have created an exploratory committee to research the new fee. “This is just an opportunity for us to look for another way to source some additional revenue,” she said as she rolled out the amendment. The amendment died because of a tie vote of 7-7 (two council members were out of chambers and couldn’t vote), but there wasn’t much of a discussion as to what exactly is a congestion fee and what commuters should expect.

The concept has been around for some time and implemented internationally in London, Stockholm, and Singapore, but New York City will be the first U.S. to implement it.

Simply put, commuters would pay to drive into the city’s core. The revenue would be used for infrastructure improvements as, according to the council member, commuters aren’t currently paying their fair share.

In practice, governing entities designate a “congestion zone,” or multiple zones, and charge vehicles when they pass through. NYC, which plans to implement it by 2021, has yet to figure out exactly how it would be enforced but it’ll likely be through some sort of expansion of their EZ Pass system, a system similar to Harris County Toll Road Authority’s EZ Tag. For vehicles without a tag, a camera would snap a picture of their license plate and bill them that way.

In NYC, the cost during business hours is estimated to be $11-25 for passenger vehicles and $25 for trucks, it would decrease on nights and weekends.

Seattle’s mayor wants to implement a version of it by 2021 and The Seattle Times editorial board came out against the idea saying it won’t decrease traffic and will make it harder to attract visitors. Portland is seeking input from the state’s Department of Transportation, and San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia are currently studying it.

Congestion pricing, despite its issues, seems to be gradually catching on in cities across the country. Bond Buyer expects the popularity of this new tax to grow as cities try to find ways to fund crumbing infrastructure and revitalize their mass transit systems.

While council shot down the idea for now, the Mayor’s support of it should leave commuters wondering if it may come back up.

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