DONALD TRUMP made a splash during the American presidential campaign when he called for a trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure. But when he actually released his first major budget proposal this week, funds for roads and bridges hardly attracted notice. Though the document does lay out a target of $200bn in direct federal spending, to be augmented by private investments, it provides only $5bn in 2018. “President Trump’s campaign promises on infrastructure are crumbling faster than our roads and bridges,” said one senior Democrat.
Yet tucked away in the proposal is one short paragraph that ought to intrigue the country’s city-dwellers, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, as well as business travellers who often find themselves visiting American cities.
In a paragraph titled “Incentivize Innovative Approaches to Congestion Mitigation”, there is a proposal to “provide valuable incentives for localities to think outside of the box in solving long-standing congestion challenges,” modeled after earlier programmes that “provided competitive grants to urbanized areas that were willing to institute a suite of solutions to congestion, including congestion pricing, enhanced transit services, increased telecommuting and flex scheduling, and deployment of advanced technology.”
Impenetrable jargon, perhaps. But two words ought to stand out: congestion pricing.
Londoners are quite familiar with the idea. In the British capital motorists pay £11.50 ($14.90) to enter the city centre on a weekday. The programme has had clear benefits, cutting traffic and emissions, raising more than $300m a year for public transit, and reducing accidents by 40%. Still, a flat fee has its shortcomings, and a survey this year found support for charging drivers variable amounts based on where and how far they drive.
That latter model has made some inroads in America. While no American city has attempted anything like London’s congestion pricing, federal grants have helped several cities experiment with variable charges on major commuter highways. That seems to be what is on President Trump’s mind.
In Los Angeles, for example, a programme allowed motorists to pay to use express lanes that were previously available only to high-occupancy vehicles. A report released in 2015 found that 86% of Angelenos surveyed had a good or excellent experience with the express lanes, and most said they liked having the option of paying when in a hurry, even if they did not use them often. For a programme that introduced new charges, and which risked being seen as a way for the wealthy to travel faster than those of lesser means, these are pretty high marks.
Such schemes fall some way short of London's comprehensive model. But they are the first step along the way. During commuting hours, for example, Interstate 66 near Washington, DC, is now open only to vehicles with at least two occupants and solo drivers who pay a toll. The idea is to reduce the number of cars on the road, to speed commute times, to promote public transit and make streets more pedestrian-friendly.
For these reasons, these programmes tend to be popular with urbanites. They are less beloved among people living far from cities who rely on cars to get around and do not want to pay extra for the privilege. So it might seem surprising to find the congestion-pricing proposal in a Republican budget (let alone coming from a president who thinks of cities as “a disaster” where “you get shot walking to the store”).
But the proposal is actually in line with some of Mr Trump’s priorities. His trillion-dollar infrastructure pitch is predicated on substantial private investment. And that investment will only happen if the investors have a way to make money. The result is likely to be more tolls, something few drivers like. But it makes perfect sense for those tolls to be in places that make urban commuting more palatable. Even if the main beneficiaries are not of the type of people that backed the Republicans in the election.
What does all this mean for business travellers? Well, for the time being, nothing.
The budget proposal is just that, and it stands virtually no chance of being adopted in its current form by Congress. But with federal funding for congestion pricing programmes being proposed in a Republican document, it is the sort of common-sense measure that could garner bipartisan support. And for business travellers, that could significantly improve the experience of visiting American cities. If these programmes are adopted on a wide scale with pricing sufficient to rebalance supply and demand, the risk of running late to a meeting because of a traffic jam would diminish. Public-transit options could improve. Cities could become more pleasant to navigate on foot (or bicycle) as fewer cars clog the roads. Those having to pay an extra few bucks to get into the city might find that the improved experience and speed of access are well worth the price.