Seattle City Council may study congestion pricing for downtown streets; concerned that tolling new tunnel will increase traffic

The news that the Seattle City Council might fund a study of congestion pricing on downtown streets is certain to add to concerns that city leaders are quick to tax. Congestion pricing (also called variable tolling), though, is a far-from-new concept, and one with support from across the ideological spectrum. Regardless of what Seattle does – and it doesn’t appear it will do anything quickly – congestion pricing – will remain on the policymakers’ agenda. While typically tolling is associated with new infrastructure – bridges, tunnels, highways – congestion pricing is not limited to new facilities.

Let’s begin with what’s being discussed in Seattle. The Seattle Times reports,

The budget request, yet to be approved: a $200,000 study to understand the effects of putting tolls on the new Highway 99 tunnel “and explore options, such as congestion pricing, to help manage impacts to local streets and transit travel times.”

Congestion pricing means tolling. A study of tolling on downtown Seattle streets.

The concern: 

The 99 tunnel is set to open, with tolls, in early 2019. The toll prices are yet to be determined, but they’re sure to cause some drivers to divert off 99 to avoid the charges.

The city council cannot act unilaterally to impose tolls.

[Councilmember Mike O’Brien] said the city is “a long ways” from even having a discussion about congestion pricing — tolling on downtown streets or to enter downtown. And if Seattle ever did it, O’Brien said, there would be a “massive expansion” in transit service. The city could, conceivably, implement such a system without the Legislature’s approval, but it would have to be approved by Seattle voters.

This isn’t the first time Seattle considered congestion pricing. A 2009 study looked at variable tolling. The context was different, as is clear from the brief statement of the study purpose.

The Seattle Variable Tolling Study responds to the Seattle Climate Action Plan’s direction to investigate variable tolling as a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Even earlier, in 2005, the Washington Research Council wrote a brief citing congestion pricing as an infrastructure funding tool.

Tolls work best in cases where there do not exist attractive free alternatives. If a new bridge saves a half hour of driving, then motorists will pay a toll to save the time. But if alternatives, such as nearby surface streets, attract those who do not want to pay, tolls compound traffic problems by diverting traffic.

Tolls have gone in a new direction recently. Rather than paying tolls to use a brand new corridor, motorists now have the opportunity to pay a toll to avoid congestion in an existing corridor.

Substitute “tunnel” for “bridge” in the example and you  have Seattle’s potential diversion problem.

A 2007 article in the Association of Washington Business’s magazine, Washington Business examined – note: not an AWB endorsement of the concept- reported,

Perhaps the most radical application of congestion pricing has been its introduction into heavily congested central cities, such as London and Stockholm, which charge drivers a fee (now about $16 per day in London) to enter the central zone. Proponents claim that the charge has reduced traffic in London by 30 percent, but merchants have been understandably angry.

For readers interested in learning more about congestion pricing, we’d recommend a primer by the Federal Highway administration, a 2016 report from the Mercatus Center, and  “why you’ll love paying for roads that used to be free,” Part 1 and Part 2.