How congestion tolling could help solve Seattle’s traffic woes
Congestion tolling has been a controversial topic of late, following a recent poll by The Seattle Times that showed 70 percent of respondents either opposed or strongly opposed it being enacted in downtown Seattle.
The basic concept behind congestion tolling is simple, but it comes with a handful of caveats that change the outcome dramatically, depending on the situation.
A presumed plan would charge drivers in downtown Seattle to drive within a certain radius, with the hope of reducing congestion and possibly raising money to put toward things like transit and improvement projects.
To that end, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan recently commissioned consulting company Nelson\Nygaard to study the potential impacts various tolling scenarios or models would have on the city.
We don’t know much about what the firm has learned so far, but ultimately, it has a handful of important questions to answer.
“In Seattle, there are really, really important details — like who has to pay? How much do you pay? Where do you pay?” Washington State Transportation Center Director Mark Hallenbeck told MyNorthwest.
But why pour resources into studying a measure like congestion tolling in the first place? The answer to that question is far less complicated, says Hallenbeck.
“It’s the absolute best congestion relief mechanism known to mankind,” he said.
Consistently ranking in the top 10 for traffic congestion in the country, Seattle is a city in need of effective solutions.
When it comes to finding those solutions, the viability of congestion tolling ultimately boils down to economics.
“Travel is an economic good,” said Hallenbeck. “Like all economic goods, it follows the law of supply and demand: If you raise the price, people use less of it. If you lower the price, then people use more of it. Lower demand, and you decrease congestion and increase mobility.”
The downside is the reluctance people have when they’re suddenly asked to pay for a commodity that has traditionally been free, evidenced by the Times’s poll, and by recently-introduced legislation that would ban congestion pricing altogether in Seattle.
“Congestion pricing — while being immensely effective — is very unpopular,” Hallenbeck pointed out.
Congestion pricing across the globe
That unpopularity can be seen in cities where it’s been implemented, with an almost direct correlation between leaders who enact congestion tolling and getting voted out of office.
In 2003, London Mayor Ken Livingstone introduced congestion tolling, reducing the volume of cars moving through the city by around 15 percent, and funding the addition of new bus routes and an expansion to the subway system.
Livingstone expanded the boundary of the tolling area in 2007, and subsequently lost the mayoral election the following year.
Cut to Sweden in 2006, where a similar congestion tolling measure was enacted in 15 separate municipalities. After a six-month trial period, the legislators who implemented the toll were swiftly voted out of office, 14 of the 15 cities voted to cease tolling, and Stockholm became the lone city to keep it in place.
After five years year of operation, a study showed that traffic in Stockholm had decreased by over 20 percent from the pre-tolling era.
Could this work in Seattle?
In Seattle, it’s difficult to accurately judge how a congestion tolling model would work without knowing exactly what the city’s priorities are.
“The real question is what are they truly trying to achieve?” Hallenbeck posited. “Does the design they come up with actually match with what they’re saying they’re trying to achieve? If that happens, it’s a good plan. If the design they come up is not what they really want to achieve, then they won’t achieve it.”
Based on the data Nelson\Nygaard comes back with, Mayor Durkan will have to decide what she wants out of a tolling system. Many of the outcomes, as Hallenbeck describes, are mutually exclusive.
Some tolling models cost a small fortune to implement, but greatly reduce congestion, like a possible tolling ring around downtown Seattle. Others could raise money for vital public services, but do less to decrease traffic, like tolling of drivers moving through the new SR 99 tunnel that starts this summer.
Right now, it’s unclear which direction the city wants to go in.
“My understanding is that (Nelson\Nygaard) is not getting concrete direction at this point on what those goals are — what that says to me is that the mayor probably doesn’t know what (tolling) can and can’t achieve, and she’s waiting for more information,” said Hallenbeck.
“The real key is there are so many things this could achieve, [and] the study’s not far enough along to say those things,” he added.