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Seattle tolling: What drivers should know about the city’s plans

Heavy traffic on Second Avenue in downtown Seattle. (Oran Viriyincy, Flickr)

We reported late last week that the city of Seattle is starting to move forward with tolling downtown streets to help address congestion. I sat down recently with the city’s head of mobility to talk about congestion pricing.

And for Heather Marx, the problem is obvious.

“One of the ways to make things move more smoothly through downtown is just to have fewer cars,” she said, but the solution to that congestion is far from easy.

“When I look out my window and I see the number of cars out there and when I hear people talk about how frustrated they are being in traffic, and I say this gently, ‘if you’re in traffic you are traffic,'” Marx said.

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That traffic includes buses, bikes, ride-shares, pedestrians — everyone. Pricing people out of the downtown core with tolling is just the latest attempt to get people out of their cars and into transit. That is the goal of congestion pricing.

“This is something they do in London,” Marx said. “They do it in Stockholm and New York. I know Los Angeles is looking at this.”

The city’s first 48-page report looking at places with congestion pricing, show that those cities experienced a 30 percent reduction in congestion. Many businesses worry that charging people to get into downtown will hurt them, but this study suggests that Stockholm and London saw positive economic benefits from this approach. Will that happen with Seattle tolling? That’s what’s left to figure out.

Of the 11 methods of congestion pricing studied by Seattle — which included approaches like banning fossil-fuel vehicles or zones for autonomous cars only — the city settled on four to pursue.

  • A straight toll to enter the downtown core.
  • Charging vehicles for driving inside a pricing zone.
  • Only charging certain vehicles, like ride-shares or commercial vehicles.
  • Allow access to zones if the car is enrolled in the state road usage charge program.

The city is focusing on four areas as it studies this idea. Equity, climate and health, congestion and implementation. The city wants to know if tolling downtown would adversely impact the poor; what the impact to the climate would be; and whether this change would make Seattle easier to get around.

So we’ll see how the city progresses on this.

I asked Marx whether it’s fair to compare Seattle to New York, Stockholm, or London. Those cities have mature transit systems. Something Seattle doesn’t have. There is no mass transit option to get into downtown for many people in the Puget Sound area.

“That actually is a really good point,” Marx admitted.

Maybe these Seattle tolling options could make sense when Sound Transit has light rail completed to Everett and Tacoma, but that’s more than 15 years away.

Seattle does not have to go to the Legislature to get the approval to do this. It already has the approval. It does have to get the support of voters, however. The city cannot implement this without a vote of the people.

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