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Seattle Mayor Durkan gets funding to study congestion pricing

Seattle's infamous Mercer Mess. (MyNorthwest Photo)

The effort to start congestion pricing in Seattle just got a major financial boost, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan recently announced.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to see exactly how we would implement it, how we would put up the cameras to catch people, how you would charge, how much you charge, and what we do for equity,” Durkan said Friday. “Because there’s a number of people right now who have to travel into Seattle … because they can’t afford to live here anymore. It’s tied to affordability.”

Durkan has previously said that she would like to establish a congestion pricing program in the downtown core by the end of her first term, which is 2021. She could not say exactly when the city will implement a program when she spoke Friday. Right now, the city is using grant money to study how it would apply the street charge.

RELATED: Seattle wins Bloomberg climate change grant

Durkan’s comments came with the announcement that Seattle was awarded a $2.5 million grant from Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge. The grant will help the city explore and implement ways to meet climate change goals. Among the plans Seattle has for the money is an effort to study how to implement congestion pricing in the city.

The pricing would establish tolls to drive on select Seattle streets, perhaps with differing charges depending on the time. The aim is to discourage people from driving cars around town as the population grow. A handful of cities use the pricing tactic, such as London, Singapore, and Milan.

“We know that we have to do a lot of outreach and we have to gain the data on that,” Durkan said. “We know that we cannot roll (congestion pricing) out without addressing very strong equity concerns. This (grant) will allow us to do that work to see how we can do it.”

“If you look across the globe, those cities that have implemented congestion pricing have had the greatest success on getting people out of vehicles and reducing vehicles in the city,” she said. “It’s had another huge, very important benefit. That’s a health benefit. The number of asthma cases in children have dropped precipitously in those areas where they’ve actually had congestion pricing.”

It’s not the first time a Seattle official has promoted congestion pricing. Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien mentioned the idea in 2017. Seattle’s new tunnel — that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct — will require tolls. O’Brien noted that this may cause people to avoid the tunnel and use surface streets. He said that implementing tolls on surface streets could deter people from doing that.

Beyond congestion pricing: More transit, electric cars

Durkan also said that the Bloomberg grant will be targeted at building efficiency. It will also help Seattle accelerate a move toward electric vehicles and getting more people to use transit instead of cars. She said that future generations demand “bold actions” such as these.

RELATED: Gridlock guru believes street tolls would change status quo

“That means buses, cars, and trucks that make up about two thirds of our climate burden, we have to shift,” Durkan said. “We need to get people out of their cars, out of single occupancy vehicles, and into other modes of transportation – transit, biking, walking,”

“If people do have to drive, or the city needs vehicles, we want to move more and more of them as quickly as we can to be electric vehicles,” she said. “… number one rule: get people out of their cars and out of vehicles when possible. Number two: if we have vehicles, make them as electric as possible.”

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