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Jammed cities eye 'pay to drive'

New York and other major US cities are considering fees for those driving during rush hour.

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Are you stuck on the freeway and willing to pay almost anything to get moving again?

Some cities may give you the opportunity to reach into your wallet as part of an idea now reaching American shores.

The concept is simple: to cut down on bumper-to-bumper traffic and improve air quality, charge a fee to use the roads – or even enter the city – during rush hour.

Known as congestion pricing, the concept is favored by the US Department of Transportation, which is planning to help fund some of these efforts this summer. Nine cities – including such car-oriented cities as San Diego, Miami, and Dallas – are proposing a charge to use roads during rush hour. New York's is the most wide-sweeping – tacking on an $8 fee for cars and $21 for trucks to enter much of Manhattan.

Opponents call the proposal a regressive tax that hurts working people. And they worry about small businesses that count on commuters losing business.

Proponents of the system say it is a way to get more riders on mass-transit systems or at least in van or car pools. The model is London, which claims that such fees are now allowing traffic to flow more smoothly.

"The concept is certainly starting to spread," says Allison Hannon, a researcher at the Climate Group in New York, a nonprofit that tries to connect business and government to solve climate issues. "What happened is that London's Mayor Ken Livingstone and Oslo's mayor went out on a ledge and tried it, and it actually worked."

As almost anyone who drives in an urban area can attest, traffic jams don't seem to go away. In May 2005, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University found that congestion continued to grow in 85 regions it studied. Overall, traffic delays amounted to 3.7 billion hours in 2003, up from 700 million hours in 1982, the study found.

From an environmental standpoint, gridlocked traffic is also costly. Stalled cars have higher emissions than moving traffic, says Timothy Lomax of the TTI, who has been involved in urban-congestion studies for the past 20 years. "You can improve the emissions if you reduce the stop-and-go and move into a range of flow-and-go – say 30 to 40 miles per hour," says Mr. Lomax.

San Diego, in fact, has been charging commuters a congestion toll since 1997 to use special lanes of the I-15, the main inland north-south expressway. The toll itself changes, depending on the traffic, from 50 cents to as much as $8 if there is an emergency or a car breakdown. The users save an average of 10 to 15 minutes, but surveys show they think they save 30 minutes.

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