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Seattle mayor proposes congestion pricing to fight climate change

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The congestion-reducing idea is one of many that could boost the city’s progress toward its Paris Agreement goals


On Wednesday morning, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a slate of action items to help the city combat climate change. The boldest part of the plan? Durkan wants Seattle to become the first American city to toll city roadways.

Among the other short- and long-term actions proposed by Durkan to meet the benchmarks laid out in the Paris climate accord: Encourage electric vehicle usage by requiring electric vehicle charging stations in new construction, phase out fossil fuels in the city’s vehicle fleet, and fund the conversion of 18,000 homes from oil heat to electric heat pumps.

So far, the tolling plan—“improving mobility through pricing”—is the vaguest section: The document says the plan will combine pricing to drive on certain streets with expanded investment in “transit and electrification in underserved communities.”

The Seattle Department of Transportation will conduct a study to look into what this could look like in Seattle, including possible pricing plans, and examine how a system would affect congestion from State Route 99 tunnel tolling, a growing population, ride-hailing, and freight vehicles.

The program would ideally, according to Durkan’s climate action strategy, come along with improved pedestrian, bicycle, and transit facilities. (That announcement comes amid more delays to a connected bike network downtown, although it’s unclear how this could expedite long-awaited bike infrastructure.)

While a program like this hasn’t been implemented yet in the United States—although we’re not the first U.S. city to have this conversationsimilar programs have seen success in Europe. In 2003, London started congestion pricing in many of its central neighborhoods, charging around $15 USD to drive a vehicle through between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. The program raised around $1.6 billion USD in the first 10 years. That money has gone toward mobility improvements that don’t rely on single-occupancy vehicles, including the city’s bus network and bike infrastructure. Other cities have gone so far as to ban certain types of vehicles from downtown streets altogether.

“Seattle can lead the world by taking bold action to reduce our carbon footprint while protecting our communities from the worst impacts of climate change,” said Durkan in a statement. “We are already seeing these impacts—from wildfires that choke our air to extreme rain events flooding our streets—and they are being disproportionately felt most in communities that are already disadvantaged.”

In addition to commitment to the Paris Agreement, the city’s 2011 Climate Action Plan commits Seattle to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and emissions 58 percent below 2008 levels by 2030.

Durkan’s climate action plan lays out the city’s progress so far—and while there is some movement, the city is far from meeting that goal. Greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by just 6 percent since 2008, although part of that is due to a growing population; per-person emissions decreased by 17 percent.

50 percent of all Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions were from passenger vehicles, like cars, SUVs, and light trucks. Freight vehicles made up 16 percent—around the same amount as residential buildings and commercial buildings. Waste management made up just 3 percent of Seattle’s emissions.

While the majority of Seattle’s downtown workers avoid single-occupancy vehicles on their commutes—and transit ridership is growing rapidly—Seattleites are still, for the most part, clinging to car ownership.

Seattle’s continued car-dependence was one of a few driving forces behind a package of parking reforms that passed through City Council last week. “We can’t expect to absorb 70 cars per day and expect to have clean air,” said City Councilor Rob Johnson, discussing the legislation.

“Transportation is the number one contributor of Seattle’s climate emissions,” said Seattle City Councilor Mike O’Brien of Durkan’s plan in a statement. “If we are going to do our part to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, we must start with these bold measures that push the city towards investing in alternatives to unsustainable fossil fuels in our vehicles.”