Sunday, February 24, 2008

Driving a massive positive externality through the heart of downtown Boston.

The New York Times reports from Boston about the progress of the Big Dig. The expensive work affecting traffic patterns is done, but the city is now hard-pressed to find the revenue to complete what had been planned for the newly opened land above the new tunnel:

Where the highway used to be is now a milelong green space with benches, fountains and fledgling trees ready to welcome pedestrians come spring. Where the highway cut off waterfront neighborhoods from the rest of the city, there is now a clear view to Boston Harbor, the Italian North End, the New England Aquarium and the wharfs that surround it.

Yet problems persist. The Big Dig was one of the most expensive public works projects in the nation’s history, and money for finishing touches is scarce. The real estate downturn has threatened development along the corridor, and the new parks, skinny and hemmed in by busy three-lane surface roads, present their own hurdles.

Lackluster fund-raising and other obstacles have stalled plans for four new buildings along the greenway — a museum, a cultural center, a visitors center and a Y.M.C.A. — and a glassed-in garden planned for its southern tip has been scrapped.

While the project was a godsend for drivers — a study by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority found it cut the average trip through Boston to 2.8 minutes from 19.5 — residents are looking to the $100 million worth of aesthetic changes for more proof the agony was worth it.

There's the missing funding, hiding right there in the last paragraph. Saving so many drivers so much time translates to huge dollars in savings, and yet these drivers get to pass (so quickly) under Boston now without even slowing down to leave some money. You don't have to assign a very high value to drivers' time to place a massive value on the ongoing benefits created here, a considerable positive externality. Some sort of toll is the obvious way to share these benefits, and to realize some of the other benefits associated with congestion pricing. I'm sure that making I-93 a toll road was considered and rejected during the planning for the project, though perhaps this was before the advent of technology that speeds toll collection. I don't like paying tolls any more than the next guy, but I bet most people would happily pay 50 cents to drive through Boston in three minutes instead of twenty. And Robert Moses proved, among other things, that you can do an awful lot of building with the money generated by urban tolls. Building a museum, a cultural center, a visitors center, a Y.M.C.A., and a glassed-in garden would still leave a lot of money for good works.

From a little on-line digging, I can't figure out when and why tolls were ruled out -- anyone know? There are tolls charged for use of the Ted Williams Tunnel, a new route to Logan Airport and East Boston.

don't know, but could speculate that it's politically palatable symmetry .

the Callahan/Sumner required and still requires a toll, ergo the Williams does.

the old elevated Central Artery extracted no toll save for the precious wasted hours of one's finite life, ergo the "new" Central Artery Depression is toll-free.
With a bridge or a tunnel, you have a long stretch where you can put tolls on either end. There are so many on- and off-ramps along I-93 in downtown Boston that locating toll booths would be a real challenge. And you can't go 100% to EZ Pass, since not everyone will have one. Something like what they do in London is probably the only answer.
Toll or no toll. This is the best thing that has happened to Boston!
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