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It’s time to clear a path through the political gridlock for a test of congestion pricing

December 05, 2019

When Chris Osgood, Boston’s top transportation official, made clear the other night that congestion pricing “is something we should absolutely consider,” the response I wanted to hear from the state’s transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, was “Yes!”

Of course, Pollack didn’t say that. Instead, she stayed on message: “Congestion pricing is a means, it’s not the end . . . It’s a tool in the toolkit. It’s not a silver bullet.”

The exchange came during a panel discussion I moderated Tuesday at Faneuil Hall to discuss the Globe Spotlight Team’s “Seeing Red” series on the region’s debilitating traffic. The three-part investigation highlighted the divide between the city and state on the issue of charging tolls during rush hour to discourage driving when roads are most congested.

I was hoping Pollack would have warmed up to the concept as a growing chorus of business and civic leaders call for congestion pricing to save us from the worst traffic in the United States. London and Stockholm have implemented programs with success, and New York City is rolling out its own version. Initially, the state had a good excuse to lay low on congestion pricing, citing how the City of Boston didn’t seem interested. But as reported in the Spotlight series, Mayor Marty Walsh has adopted a new attitude.

“Now is the moment in our time where we have to be taking bold steps,” said Osgood, the city’s chief of streets, echoing his boss. “The conversation is in some ways shifting from ‘if new ways to price the road is something we should consider’ to ‘what is the right way for us to craft a roadway pricing program that can be sustainable and equitable?’”

If Boston moves ahead with congestion pricing, it’s going to need the state’s help, and you can already sense political gridlock setting in.

Representative Bill Straus — the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, who was part of the panel — wondered whether Boston could implement a congestion pricing scheme that wouldn’t just shift traffic onto alternate routes.

Enforcement would also probably mean installing hundreds of cameras on street corners, something London had to do.

“I’m not sure Massachusetts is going to be all that comfortable with 24/7 monitoring networks turning out location data on citizens,” Straus told me later.

But another panelist, Mary Skelton Roberts, codirector for climate at the Barr Foundation, urged the city and state to experiment with congestion pricing.

“We have enough data that tells us whether we can try something and pilot it here and then course-correct as needed,” Roberts said. “But to say there’s not an opportunity for us to be really looking at how we’re going to get people out of their cars and use a tool that does change behavior, I always feel like that it’s a little irresponsible. We do need to say let’s figure it out.”

Pollack and Straus aren’t against all proposals for new driving fees. It’s just that their preferred method is the so-called managed lane. This approach gives drivers the option to pay more if they want, something Maryland has done, instead of mandating that everyone pay an additional fee when traveling during peak periods.

The state is analyzing where best to have managed lanes and will conduct a test in 2020.

“It’s not about forcing people or punishing people who have no choice,” Pollack said of managed lanes.

Congestion pricing became a hot topic in 2018, when the Legislature included in its budget a pilot program that would have allowed discounted tolls for drivers who commuted outside of rush hours. Governor Charlie Baker sent the measure back and instead agreed to commission a broader study on congestion. (For those keeping score at home, that’s the “We’re at a tipping point” report, issued in August.)

What’s different today is that the business community has been agitating for bolder fixes, including congestion pricing. Last fall Uber, in a Globe opinion piece, called for a “well designed congestion pricing scheme” and declared that it “is ready to work with all stakeholders” on the issue.

And in recent weeks in local media interviews, Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish and MassMutual CEO Roger Crandall have extolled the virtues of congestion pricing.

Add Foley Hoag partner Doug McGarrah to that list. “If you can’t get around, it changes the way you do business,” said McGarrah, who chairs the business-backed transportation group A Better City. “People are ready to try something.”

What should happen next is a comprehensive analysis of congestion pricing and what it would look like in the city. It shouldn’t take forever — maybe a year. We know Pollack isn’t going to do one, but Beacon Hill could. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce is calling for the Legislature to convene a citizen-led task force to come up with scenarios for congestion pricing and new tolls, down to where new the gantries would go up and what fees would be charged.

It’s a no-brainer of an idea, but lawmakers seem cautious — as if afraid of what we all might learn. The chamber’s CEO, Jim Rooney, believes intuitively that congestion pricing is a good idea, but is keeping an open mind.

“I may learn that it is a bad idea,” he said. “Or, conversely, there are ways of doing it that doom it to failure. There is a lot to be learned.”

Even Chris Dempsey, whose advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts is one of the biggest proponents of congestion pricing, is on board with the chamber’s deliberative approach.

“Nobody is ready to throw up toll gantries everywhere,” he said.

Beacon Hill has the power this legislative session to break the political gridlock on congestion pricing. Will lawmakers act, or are commuters just going to remain stuck in place?

Read this story on the BostonGlobe.com.