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Gridlock guru believes congestion pricing would change status quo


If Seattle wants majority approval of tolling its most congested streets then leaders should prepare to bargain.

RELATED: A history of why Seattle traffic is so bad

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she wants to implement congestion pricing by the end of her first term. The city will create a plan after studying the downtown area.

It would be the first congestion pricing system in the U.S. that affects all drivers.

Lessons from New York

Advocates have pushed for a congestion zone in Manhattan for years. The effort dates back to at least the early 1970s. Sam Schwartz, aka Gridlock Sam, was there. He says the first effort was killed by Congress.

Schwartz says New York City’s second attempt resulted in a lawsuit.

In 2008, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed for legislation that would have charged drivers $8 to enter a Manhattan congestion zone. Leaders wouldn’t bring it up for a vote.

Just last month lawmakers approved a surcharge on all for-hire vehicles operating in Manhattan south of 96th Street. But the approved legislation was missing the main component — charging all drivers a daily fee to enter the congestion zone.

Part of the hesitation to fully implement congestion pricing in Manhattan may be related to the fact that it was an election year. Schwartz told KIRO Nights he hopes the congestion zone will be for all drivers by next year.

Seattle traffic

There’s a difference — obviously — between Seattle and New York. While much of the five boroughs are serviced by a subway system, trains, and buses; Seattle has an incomplete light rail system, incomplete streetcar line, buses, and monorail. Those who live outside of the city often have no real choice but to drive or carpool in.

Schwartz says he’s not sure how people would respond to congestion pricing in Seattle.

“First thing to ask yourselves, are you happy with the status quo? Is everything working right? Do you not suffer from congestion?”

It isn’t a stretch to say the answer to all of those questions is an emphatic no.

RELATED: Drivers OK with $10 toll lanes, what about $30?

People driving into Seattle during the weekdays spend hours in traffic. The most recent data from the Washington State Department of Transportation show commuters driving from Everett to Seattle — a 23-mile trip — should give themselves more than an hour.

Traveling within the city can be just as frustrating. A combination of over-crowded streets and construction will often lead to travel times well above what they should be. Last year, GeekWire staff conducted a race through the city. The winner was a Onewheel.

Congestion pricing

Congestion pricing hasn’t necessarily been welcomed with open arms in the cities where it exists. Schwartz says that more than 60 percent of people polled in Stockholm were originally against the idea. Six months later, at least 60 percent were for it. Drivers in Stockholm pay a little more than $4 for a trip into or out of the city center.

Schwartz says about 85 percent of drivers won’t change their habits if congestion pricing is implemented. That means a city that does has to accommodate the 15 percent that do. In London, for example, people who live within the congestion pricing zone get a significant discount.

In New York, the most recent legislation called for lowering the other tolls into the city if a congestion zone was created. That proposal alone brought a number of opponents on board with the idea.

As for Seattle, everything seems up in the air. Schwartz says the city needs to come up with a plan that does the greatest good.

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