"Pricing" v. "Tolling" v. Something Else: Does it Really Matter?

Shakespeare’s Juliet famously said, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Well, that “what’s in a name? issue has been the foundation of perhaps the most persistent debate in the history of road pricing…or value pricing…or congestion pricing…or dynamic pricing…high occupancy tolling…

The fact is, scores of different names have been applied to the concept of charging varying fees according to driver demand. Various names have gone in and out of vogue over the years, with each new variation promising to be more effective than the last. The most common Flavors of the Month right now seem to be “road pricing? and “congestion pricing.? But next year it could easily be something different.

I’ve been at this for a long time, so I can’t help but wonder: Does labeling matter as much as we pricing advocates think it does? After all, the history of public acceptance of road pricing tells us this: Consumers always are highly skeptical of the concept, whatever we call it, in the early stages. Pre-implementation, labeling doesn’t help minds. That initial skepticism only morphs into support after consumers can EXPERIENCE IT, whatever we happen to be calling “it.?

So, historically, it’s not the marketing label that changes citizens’ minds; it’s the experience. Moreover, some of the people I know who are most devoted to our Twin Cities “congestion pricing? project describe it with the four-letter word that sends chills up the spines of marketers, “T-O-L-L.? Gasp!

So I ask you, does labeling matter as much as we think it does? If so, what’s the best label?

Comments

If it smells like a tax, looks like a tax, and tastes like a tax, it is probably going to be interpreted as a tax no matter how you dress it up.

And lets face it, even if you argue till you are blue in the face that a 'whatever you choose to dress it up as' is not a tax, you intend to spend the money on exactly the same set of things that you currently fund from taxes.

Names are extremely important, and John Q Public usually can smell when something is being dressed up to be something it isn't. The best way forward? Call it what it is, honestly, and have the battle in an honest and transparent way.

I'd say something about "lipstick on a pig," but I wouldn't want Munnich to feel insulted!

Look, when someone charges me to use a road, in my mind that's a "toll." No matter what fancy name the transportation guys call it, it's a "toll." In the case of an optional HOT lane, it's a toll I'm willing to occassionally pay. But people who use terms other than "toll" just sound Orwellian to me. They sound like they have something to hide.

Noboby is hiding anything. The fact is that roads don't pay for themselves, and the gas tax only covers part of the cost. Everyone driving at the same increases congestion, and without a market price, i.e. a toll based on the amount of congestion, everybody pays the price in lost time. Congestion pricing works as we have seen in London, Stockholm, Singapore, as well as U.S. -- San Diego and Orange County, CA; Minneapolis, MN; Denver, CO, and Seattle, WA.

I think the there is a distinction to be made between the tradition usage of term "toll" and "pricing". Fundamentally a toll is a payment to the entity, public or private, that created the roadway, bridge or tunnel. Its rooted in the physical existence of a tangible thing and the payment is reimbursement to the entity for consuming an portion of the tangible thing's productive life. There is enormous resistance to tolling an existing structure which has been perceived as free yet a greenfield facility is much more readily acepted as a tolled facility because it provides a new access or service.

There is also a clear, though muddled sense about "haven't we paid for this thing yet?" which suggests to me that the relationship to a physical thing is something people understand and accept.

While congestion is manifestly a physical thing we experience as a driver its a community of strangers (and obstacles to "my" passage). I don't think the public sees anyone as "owning" or otherwise being responsible for congestion (or for the roadway itself for that matter), and there is suspicion about paying a fee for a relatively intangible concept of "road space".

As some of the earlier comments have suggested, I think the end use of the funding derived from tolling or pricing is important to how the public sees it and how readily they accept it.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs