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Credit: Photo: Illinois State Toll Highway Authority

Since 2004, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority has converted all 20 of its plazas from mainline barrier tolls to open-road tolling as part of a $5.3 billion congestion-relief program.

Traffic congestion is one of the toughest problems facing cities, counties, and states, mostly because new construction hasn't kept pace with population growth in major cities.

Between 1980 and 1999, highway mileage increased 1.5% while vehicle miles traveled increased 76%. And it's not just an urban problem. More than 39,000 miles of U.S. highways had peak-period congestion in 2003, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Of that total, more than 6800 miles were in rural areas.

Traffic congestion carries a high cost to the economy—and to the public—in the form of higher prices for goods and services. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that, in 2003, the nation's 85 largest metropolitan areas experienced 3.7 billion hours of delay, wasting 2.3 billion gallons of fuel and generating $63 billion in lost productivity.

To help solve the problem, the U.S. DOT is offering $130 million in grants under a program called Urban Partnership Agreements. Under such partnerships, cities, counties, and states are encouraged to apply for funding in four categories—tolling, transit, telecommuting, and technology and operations—all designed to reduce the number of vehicles on the nation's roads.

Particularly during rush hour.

Much of the $130 million will be used to implement “congestion pricing,” in which drivers pay more for traveling to and from major cities during peak times. High-occupancy vehicle lanes can be converted to high-occupancy toll lanes, says U.S. DOT spokesperson Brian Turmail. Higher peak-hour tolls will encourage people who don't have to travel during rush hour to take trips during off-peak times. Studies show that a small reduction in traffic volume frees up traffic to move much faster.

Critics of congestion pricing, according to The Wall Street Journal, say the tactic amounts to a tax. But since similar variable-pricing strategies have worked for other industries and other commodities—airline tickets, cell phone rates, and electricity, for example—economists believe congestion pricing is the single most viable approach to reducing congestion.

Successful U.S. applications of congestion pricing already are in operation on California's State Route 91 in Orange County, Interstate 15 in San Diego, I-25 in Denver, and I-394 in Minneapolis. “All of those have enabled congestion-free rush hour commuting and have proven popular with drivers of all income levels,” says Turmail. Internationally, congestion pricing has dramatically reduced congestion in Singapore, London, and Stockholm.

Urban Partnership Agreement application deadline: April 30

Apply to: www.fightgridlocknow.gov/docs/upafrfinal20061204.htm