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Gordon: Congestion tolling should be based on why you’re driving downtown

Seattle traffic is not fun. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Congestion tolling seems like a good idea when you apply it to everything but roads. It would be great for roller coasters or the laundry room in my apartment building. I wish Paseo had congestion pricing. With downtown Seattle, though, the city’s latest get-rich-quick scheme feels a bit like a high school bully holding out his arm and asking for your lunch money.

Because so many people are trying to get into the theme park that is downtown Seattle, the city wants to charge drivers during peak times, like when they have the gall to head to work. On the on-ramps, a sign attached to a gate would tell you to open all your windows, and then a giant robot arm would pick up your car and shake it until all the wallets and loose change fall out, while a street sweeper pushes everything into an adjacent sorting machine (that could be off, I haven’t read the proposal).

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But as critics note, in mostly tolling people who are trying to get to work and can’t afford to live in downtown Seattle, this proposal seems like yet another Seattle policy punishing those it’s claiming to help, like the wildly profitable soda tax that made my daily purchase of Mountain Dew Liberty Brew rather expensive.

Excuse-based congestion tolling

If you’re going to toll, it should at least be based on why people are driving downtown. Different tiered passes could be issued based on your excuse. Driving downtown for work? No charge. Heading downtown for a traffic-blocking protest? Big charge. Meeting a friend? When’s the last time you saw them? Last week? Then just meet them in Ballard or Fremont or something.

For instance, sometimes I head downtown for a haircut at a place I like, but it’s a totally unremarkable haircut and I’d have no issue paying a congestion toll whenever I do. Or perhaps you have relatives in town and they want to go to Pike Place. That’s toll-worthy too, because when they find out there’s a toll, they’ll either decide to do something less crowded or offer to buy lunch as recompense (win-win).

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How any of this would be implemented is up to the engineers who spent more time in school than I did. People would probably lie about why they’re going downtown, but by the time this is in place the toll robots will be able to scan your face for truthfulness. If not, we’ll just need to check references.

Sure, congestion tolling has somewhat functioned in cities like London. The difference though is they have a far more developed public transit system and everyone there flies on umbrellas and brooms to work anyway. Here, it’s more difficult for those outside the city to make it in without a car, and short of a futuristic system of air tubes whisking us to and fro, our current herd of buses and trains is not able to handle it.

My totally-feasible, excuse-based system will only hurt people who have bad reasons to go downtown, like shoplifting, meeting a friend you don’t actually like, going to a job interview you know you won’t get, or driving a parade float. Roads will be clearer, needless plans will get cancelled, and the city will be able raise plenty of money for what will probably be another toll.

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