On Monday, the Washington Post took a look at the ideas of a key Department of Transportation policymaker named Tyler Duvall, a man of bold plans who hopes to bring congestion pricing to highways across the nation. Congestion pricing is an idea with roots in the field of economics, widely supported by a broad spectrum of transportation officials.

Unfortunately, Duvall has decided to use a very limited pool of federal transportation dollars to push this plan on cities at the expense of desperately needed transportation projects nationwide. Transit in particular, for which the Bush administration has no patience at all, will get the shaft. What’s more, pricing appears to be a part of a broader campaign to make transportation self-financing and, ultimately, private.

A quick aside: the Post helpfully provides a little background on Mr. Duvall:

He had no transportation experience when he was plucked from his job handling corporate mergers and acquisitions at Hogan & Hartson and was offered a political appointment at the DOT in 2002.

So this is a guy without real transportation experience or economic training who thinks nonetheless that he’s found the solution to the congestion problem. Something tells me he hasn’t been all that concerned with reading up on network externalities, public goods, or a whole host of other economic issues that might come into play. Neither does he seem all that worried about alternatives for cash-strapped drivers.

But on the other hand, according to the Post, you have transit advocates who appear to see this conversation as either/or. That could just be the Post‘s reporting, or it could be a reaction to the DOT’s framing of the policy options, but the Post story reads as if transit supporters are saying, Don’t do pricing; do transit.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why no one is suggesting that we do both. Transit demand is growing; the adoption of road user fees will only increase such demand; and, for the past 50 years, we’ve busied ourselves building way more highway mileage than new transit capacity. Now if you start pricing roads, several things happen:

  1. Congestion falls.
  2. Demand for transit grows and existing transit systems are overwhelmed.
  3. You have a large pot of new money.
  4. You could use that money to build new transit capacity, generating a large net increase in transportation connectivity while cushioning the cost of expensive roads and gas to commuters.

That scenario calls for investments in new network capacity, which is good for the economy, but it also has a valuable redistributive function since road pricing is going to pinch middle- and low-income commuters. If you price roads without transit, you place lots of those drivers in a tough spot. Either they accept the new costs and curtail spending on other goods and services or they drastically rearrange their commuting patterns. And pattern changes won’t be easy for poorer commuters, since road pricing should increase the premium on homes near important business locations.

If you want to kill congestion while increasing overall access to economic centers, you do both. But the Bushies would rather hand the money from pricing to private industry, while some transit advocates would prefer to pay for improvements out of existing revenue streams. Why not go for the win-win?