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Seattle explores its options for congestion pricing

The city says it wants to find an equitable way to toll city streets

Checubus/Shutterstock

Last year, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan directed the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to study congestion pricing—most simply, targeted tolls to reduce car traffic on city streets. While it’s been part of the transportation conversation since then, the idea has been relatively broad, pending more information on how a program could work in Seattle.

Last week, SDOT released its initial findings on congestion pricing, giving a little bit of a better view of how it could work in Seattle. The big takeaways, according to SDOT: It would likely reduce the city’s carbon emissions, and it would have to come with heavy investment in transit. The city is still working on what the best model for Seattle would be, though, and is planning a public engagement process to help it along.

Lessons from other cities

In its study, SDOT looked at congestion pricing programs already in place in London, Milan, Singapore, Stockholm, and Gothenburg, Sweden, all outside of the United States. But it also looked at developing programs.

New York City, for example, became the first U.S. city to approve congestion pricing back in April, and already has a small piece of its plan in place: For-hire drivers pay a fee for every trip in Manhattan below 96th Street. Sometime after 2020, all drivers will have to pay a fee to drive below 60th, with the exception of some highways.

Other U.S. cities are taking a closer look, too. Los Angeles and San Francisco both ordered their own congestion pricing studies back in February. Vancouver, British Columbia is in a second round of studying—an independent commission finished up a year of exploration in 2018 and is now putting together actionable items. While not mentioned in the Seattle study, Boston and Atlanta have at least toyed with the idea, too.

The closest case was in our own backyard, though. The Washington State Transportation Commission studied something kind of like congestion pricing—a per-mile road use charge—in a 2,000-driver pilot program seeking an alternative to a gas tax.

What does tolling even look like?

In studying all these programs, SDOT found more than 10 potential pricing tools that could be used in tolling, but narrowed those down to four that would fit the city’s needs: cordon pricing, area pricing, fleet pricing, and road usage charges.

Cordon pricing is pretty simple: Drivers get charged as soon as they cross a certain boundary. Stockholm uses license plate recognition to charge tolls as soon as a car passes a sensor—kind of like driving on a toll bridge. It’s relatively easy to understand and set up, but its simplicity could also lead to equity issues and deter people from visiting a place altogether without significant mitigation.

Area pricing, which is currently in practice in London, goes a step further: Drivers are charged for both entering and continuing to drive within a certain area. It’s more complicated, but has the potential to generate more data and revenue. Like cordon pricing, though, it lacks subtlety and would need a lot of work to maintain equity and access.

Fleet pricing would single out certain kinds of vehicles—like how New York charges a fee on for-hire trips. It could be used to charge different fees on certain classes of vehicles, like commercial vehicles, and could be used in tandem with other programs, whether that’s for exemptions or additional fees.

The road usage charge—the mileage-based fee the state studied—hasn’t been studied for congestion yet, but, according to the city’s study, it has potential and would allow for a lot of precision. It might not be ready for prime time yet, though: it’s not ready for scale and it could be hard to enforce.

How is this not regressive?

One of the biggest hurdles in implementing congestion pricing would be tolls’ impact on the poor; Seattle has one of the most regressive tax structures in the country, and flat-rate tolls have a disproportionate impact on people with lower incomes.

“Lower wage earners spend a disproportionately higher amount of time commuting and a higher percentage of their income on transportation costs,” acknowledges an SDOT blog post on the study—and living near transit sometimes comes at a premium. A “critical” part of the program, says SDOT, would be closing transit gaps throughout the city and having community engagement guide program development.

It’s something that other cities have looked at, too. In New York, the proceeds all go toward improving transit: 80 percent will go towards capital projects on subways and buses, with the remaining 20 percent split evenly between Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. It also exempts emergency vehicles and drivers with disabilities from the tolls, and its plan includes a six-member Traffic Mobility Review Board to recommend other carve-outs or exemptions.

Seattle is looking at equity with a four-pronged approach: affordability, mobility, specific programs for seniors and people with disabilities, and “healthier communities.” Affordability would mean things like toll discounts, exemptions, and credits, free and reduced-cost transit passes, and options for cash payment. Mobility would be about giving people non-car options: improved bike networks (something SDOT hasn’t gotten glowing reviews on recently), improved transit service, and other alternative modalities.

SDOT also suggests special programs, like keeping information accessible and maybe doing some targeted transportation efforts to seniors and people with disabilities—and the last piece is just encouraging clean air, whether that’s through vehicle credits or improving emissions from transit.

Of course, actually developing a program that doesn’t hit Seattle’s most vulnerable populations the hardest would depend on actually pulling it off. Even the city admits its initial analysis on impacted populations is flawed—while the study estimates wealthy commuters will be more affected by the change than anyone else, it doesn’t evaluate the degree of impact.

“Because this is a totally new way to collect revenue, I think there’s a real opportunity to create a progressive funding source,” said Hester Serebrin, policy director at transportation advocacy group Transportation Choices Coalition, said over email. TCC has been supportive of a congestion pricing policy in the past. “And I mean ‘progressive’ in a few ways: both setting rate structures based on income, and in intentionally investing and reinvesting in communities that have suffered disproportionately from the costs of transportation—literal financial costs, as well as environmental and health costs.”

By structuring the program in a more progressive way, said Serebrin, there could even be an opportunity to reduce some of the area’s more regressive taxes, like sales tax.

Does congestion pricing make a difference?

According to the city’s study, congestion pricing is extremely effective in a few ways. First, it has been shown to reduce congestion—delays dropped by about a third in London, Milan, and Stockholm, and Gothenburg saw travel times speed up by 10 to 20 percent. Motor vehicle trips dropped anywhere from 12 percent to more than 44 percent across cities.

It’s also a somewhat reliable revenue source: London’s net annual revenue from congestion pricing is a cool $230 million. Stockholm raises about $150 million a year. Gothenburg—which is smaller than Seattle—raises $90 million a year. Out of the cities studied, Milan, which has a fossil-fuel-free zone, had the lowest revenue, with about $20 million a year. If Seattle raised $90 million a year, it would be a little under 5 percent of King County Metro’s operating budget.

One thing congestion pricing does really well, though, is reduce carbon emissions, which is ostensibly the reason we’re studying this in the first place. Milan’s fossil-fuel-free zone reduced emissions by a whopping 22 percent. Gothenburg—the only city studied with only cordon pricing and no corresponding low-emissions zone program—still reduced carbon emissions by 2.5 percent. Other cities reduced carbon emissions by between 15 and 17 percent.

How did we get here, and what comes next?

In April 2018, Durkan announced a slate of action items to help the city combat climate change, including directing SDOT to study congestion pricing (or, as the plan put it, “improving mobility through pricing”).

After SDOT had already started work on the study, the 2019 city budget added an extra $1 million for the second phase. This month’s findings are the first phase—phase two will evaluate pricing models and their impacts on specific areas and communities, according to SDOT.

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