Seattle Exploring Toll on Driving Downtown

Seattle plans to develop a proposal to toll city roads to ease traffic congestion and CO2 emissions, as Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last week.

Details of the proposal are still unavailable, but will draw on a tolling study focused on downtown neighborhoods that will likely have results later in 2018.

While a number of cities abroad use a whole spectrum of congestion-pricing schemes to reduce car travel in their most-clogged downtown areas, no American city has yet established a similar widespread tolling system.

Durkan explained her hope she was hopeful a congestion-pricing system could be in place by the end of her first term, in 2021.

“Obviously, we’ve got to work with stakeholders, we have to get through a lot of those things, but I think it makes a lot of sense for us to move to congestion pricing to, one, increase mobility and safety downtown and, two, to really restrict some of those greenhouse gases that are released in the urban corridor,” the mayor said in an interview.

Durkan said during her campaign last fall that the city should explore congestion pricing.

Seattle could impose tolling in the downtown core without the permission of the state Legislature, but it would almost certainly need approval from city voters.

In 2015, 56 percent of Puget Sound voters responded that system-wide tolling was a bad or very bad idea, according to a poll from the Puget Sound Regional Council.

Congestion pricing can take a number of forms, and it’s unclear which the city may pursue.

Charging varying amounts to use an entire roadway or just individual lanes — like on Interstate 405 — to discourage rush-hour traffic is one type of congestion pricing.

So is a system known as “cordon tolling,” where heavily trafficked areas (such as downtown and South Lake Union) are basically “cordoned” off and drivers must pay to enter that zone.

New York City has been discussing cordon tolling in Manhattan for more than a decade but has yet to take any action.

Durkan framed her ideas for congestion pricing as part of a larger effort to reduce Seattle’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Seattle’s four previous mayors have all tried, and mostly failed, to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, as an exploding population has simply offset any decreases in per-person emissions.

Transportation accounts for nearly 65% of Seattle’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and most of Durkan’s proposed changes focus on that part of the issue.

The mayor has also set her aim to make Seattle more inviting to electric cars. She explained that she will put forward legislation mandating new developments (or renovations) that include parking also install electric-vehicle charging stations.

“We want to make, ideally, charging stations as frequent as gas stations,” Durkan said.

Revenues from those tolls and congestion pricing overall would be put toward an increase in transit service across the city and to support more electric transportation infrastructure, Durkan said.

“We want to make it easier for people to get on transit so they don’t have to drive,” she said. “We as a city and as a region have to make real on the promise of frequent transit service.”

Durkan’s climate action plan has partly been energized by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.

“If our country is going to do anything significant on climate, the leadership has to come from states and cities,” Durkan said.

Limited tolling is already on its way within downtown Seattle, when the Highway 99 tunnel opens later this year. But the state Transportation Commission continues to argue over  how much to toll and when to start tolling.

Whatever price the agency settles on, the tolls will inevitably drive more cars to avoid the tunnel, pushing them onto already congested downtown streets.

That’s why, last year, the City Council authorized $200,000 to study the effects of the tunnel’s tolls and to explore congestion pricing in Seattle.

“The study would focus on the broader equity implications of congestion pricing in Seattle (particularly who is driving at what times) and explore options, such as the idea of pricing downtown Seattle exits, to ensure that transit service continues to operate reliably,” the proposal for the study said.

City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who proposed the study, said last fall the city was “a long ways” from considering congestion pricing but that the study would be useful information to have when that discussion did happen.

O’Brien’s office said Tuesday that the study would likely be put out for bid in the next couple of weeks and they hope for initial findings by October.

Durkan said that study would be the “starting point” for a plan on congestion pricing, “looking exactly where those corridors are where it makes sense both from a city betterment project and a greenhouse gas project.”

Seattle has studied congestion pricing previously.

2003 study by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that regionwide variable tolling — charging varying amounts on all major roads at different times — “could make excessive reoccurring congestion a thing of the past.”

2009 study, commissioned by the city, recommended tolls as a way to lower the city’s greenhouse- gas emissions, deal with congestion and raise revenue.

And, while not exactly tolling, the state is currently studying a tax on every mile driven, as a way to replace the gas tax.

Foreign cities that have implemented widespread tolling — London, Stockholm and Milan are prominent examples — have generally faced public opposition that faded away after the system was put in place and traffic congestion decreased.

“Road pricing tends to poll poorly,” Matthew Gibson, an economist at Williams College who has studied tolling, said in an interview last year. “After people experience it for a while, support tends to increase.”

New York City is the only other American city to look seriously at congestion pricing, but it has repeatedly backed away.

Just last week, New York legislators agreed on a budget that did not include Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s much-discussed proposal for a nearly $12 daily fee to drive into midtown Manhattan.

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