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A rush-hour tax on urban drivers

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President Bush wants to give $305 million to cities and states to come up with ways to charge drivers for traveling at peak traffic. Such "congestion pricing" has worked in a few cities such as London and Singapore. But can it succeed with toll-averse Americans?

A rush-hour fee would not be aimed simply at easing the commuting hassles of only those workers willing or able to pay a few extra dollars a day. It's a scheme with wider benefits, such as reduced fuel consumption, less air pollution, and better efficiency for business.

In 85 of the most congested urban areas in the United States, drivers had to endure 3.7 billion hours of traffic delays in 2003, the US Department of Transportation estimates. But beyond their frustrations, their idled driving also wasted 2.3 billion gallons of fuel and spewed millions of tons in greenhouse gases. In all, congested highways cost the US about 2 percent of its GDP.

That Mr. Bush has now jumped on the Al Gore bandwagon of wanting to impose costs on individuals for their contributions to global warming shows that this administration might be open to many Kyoto-like measures in areas where fossil fuel use needs to be curtailed.

In fact, his administration is also reportedly looking at a congestion levy on airlines to help spread out flights during heavy-traffic periods. That would likely raise air fares but also reduce the wait time and fuel loss during takeoff and landing delays. Such steps could lead to even more taxes on carbon-based fuels, forcing more investment in conservation and alternative energies, while altering American lifestyles.

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