Can We Toll Our Way Out of Congestion?

This story originally appeared in the print and online editions of Seattle magazine.

Downtown Seattle rush hour traffic

Image credit: Alex Crook, Seattle magazine

January 2020: The downtown Convention Center is under construction, kicking almost 600 buses out of the downtown transit tunnel and closing down the ramps that now give buses direct access to the Interstate 5 express lanes. Those buses now share city streets with more cars than ever, as hundreds of drivers divert to the street grid, avoiding the new Alaskan Way tunnel, which has a $2.50 toll (during nonpeak hours) and no downtown exits. Meanwhile, the old Alaskan Way Viaduct is still being demolished, KeyArena reconstruction is creating traffic chaos in South Lake Union, and a growing number of commuters are choosing Uber and Lyft over buses that are often off schedule or full, adding to congestion.

But what if there was a way to alleviate all this predicted chaos—a period the city refers to, drily, as the “period of maximum constraint”—without forcing people to get up at 4 a.m. to beat traffic, or work from home? Some city leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, think they may have found a solution in a concept called congestion pricing. The idea is simple: Charge people to drive into the center city during the times when congestion is worst, and use the revenues to fund alternatives to driving, such as increased bus service. Voilà: fewer vehicles, faster transit, improved air quality (car and truck trips account for half of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions), and safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“Most people have already made the decision [not to commute downtown by car],” says City Council member Mike O’Brien, referring to the fact that the majority of those who work downtown don’t get there by driving alone. O’Brien, with the mayor, is leading the congestion-pricing charge. “For those who haven’t [decided], this will give you more options, and for those who want to keep driving, you can keep driving, and your commute’s going to be faster—it’s just going to cost you more.”

In practice, of course, it isn’t so simple. In 2017, the Seattle City Council authorized $200,000 for a study on the effects of tolling downtown streets—an idea that will require voter approval to move forward—as well as other options, such as taxing Uber and Lyft rides, that would not require a public vote. In September, Durkan released a budget that provides another $1 million for the city to study congestion-pricing options in more detail and to conduct outreach to community members and businesses, with the goal of implementing congestion pricing by 2021, when the mayor’s first term ends.

While tolling may be controversial—a 2015 poll by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that 54 percent of King County residents opposed the idea of universal highway tolls—Durkan pointed out that in other cities that have implemented tolling, such as London and Stockholm, “People who have to drive [found] that it’s actually more efficient and more effective” than the previous free-for-all system. However, Durkan warned that before the city puts a tolling plan on the ballot, “We have to engage people deeply…and make sure that it is paired up with meaningful transit, because we can’t ask people to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles until there are meaningful alternatives.”

Technologically, congestion tolling is pretty simple: The city would create a cordon of virtual checkpoints at the edges of the tolling area and charge drivers, using special car-mounted transponders, whenever they enter the area during the times when tolls are in effect. This is exactly the system most states, including Washington, already use to toll state highways, such as the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington.

Where it gets more complicated, according to Mark Hallenbeck, director of the University of Washington–affiliated Washington State Transportation Center, is when the city starts making choices about who to charge, and when, and where. If South Lake Union is included in the tolling area, should people who live on Queen Anne get a free pass because they need to go through the neighborhood to get to I-5? If some low-income workers have no choice but to drive downtown, should the city create a low-income or nighttime exemption to the pricing scheme? All of these choices have consequences, and costs.

“The question is really, what do they want to achieve and how will they design the system to achieve it,” Hallenbeck says. “Pricing is a wonderful mechanism, but you have to design the system correctly, and you have to understand where the pain points are and apply money to those pain points. And they have to be the pain points that matter.”

Currently, only about 25 percent of people who work downtown get to and from their jobs by driving alone. That number has declined steadily in recent years, according to the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), thanks to improved transit downtown and incentives for employees to commute by bike or bus, such as free transit passes and showers in office buildings. DSA CEO Jon Scholes points to this improvement as evidence that the “carrot” approach to reducing congestion can be as effective as the “stick.”

“It’s not clear to me what problem we’re trying to solve here,” Scholes says. “[Durkan’s announcement] feels a little divorced from any clear strategy or plan. The constraints we have are the need for more transit capacity—more buses are driving by full, and the light rail system is taking longer to build than anyone wants—and the need for more housing. Generally speaking, we think we should focus our efforts there,” not on tolls, Scholes says.

Other skeptics of congestion pricing have expressed concern that tolls will disproportionately harm low-income people who have no choice but to drive to work, often from homes far outside Seattle city limits. “The suburbanization of poverty is real,” says City Council member Rob Johnson, who supports creating a program to reduce costs for low-income drivers, similar to the existing ORCA LIFT low-income transit pass. “We’re pushing people out of the city and we’re not going to be able to build transit” fast enough to serve all the low-income workers who would be impacted by congestion pricing, Johnson says.

It’s unclear exactly how many low-income workers would actually be impacted by congestion pricing. In 2017, a Puget Sound Regional Council report concluded that low-income commuters “were much more likely to walk and take transit than the overall population”—a finding that corroborates a 2009 Washington State Department of Transportation report that found that “The poor are less likely than the non-poor to commute in a personal vehicle and more likely to commute using public transportation or other modes that would not be subject to tolls.” According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, just 37 percent of Seattle residents under the poverty line drove to work alone, compared to 48 percent of those making more than 150 percent of the poverty level.

“One of the things you hear whenever you talk about a congestion-pricing scheme is, ‘This will be unfair to low-income people,’ and there are a lot of anecdotes that get brought up that are certainly real,” O’Brien says. “But in a city like Seattle, where parking’s pretty expensive”—as much as $4.50 an hour for on-street parking downtown, and $10 an hour or more in private garages—“my sense is the majority of people who drive downtown are people who have a lot of options.” The way to address the needs of lower-income people who must drive downtown isn’t to reject congestion pricing altogether, O’Brien says, it’s to “design the system around their needs” so they won’t be burdened by extra costs; for example, by making it free to drive downtown at off-peak hours, when many shift workers start their jobs.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition, says she sees no inherent contradiction between promoting alternatives to driving alone and creating an equitable, affordable transportation system. “[Congestion pricing] is a big, bold idea, so let’s go big with our policy asks,” she says. “If the goal is building a more equitable transportation system, that will inherently include a lot of things around transit speed and reliability and safe bike and pedestrian access.”

For now, the city remains in study mode, with more reports focusing on equity, race and social justice, and priorities for spending toll revenues due out later this year. Then it will have to sell the idea to the public, which could be a heavy lift, and not just because Seattle would be blazing a trail on congestion pricing for the rest of the country. People tend to hate the idea of paying for things that used to be free unless they can see concrete benefits. In Stockholm, leaders actually put tolls in place about seven months before seeking voter approval. Once voters saw how a $2.15 toll to drive downtown impacted the city—reducing traffic in the city center by 20 percent and cutting childhood asthma cases in half—they approved the plan by a majority of 53 percent. In London, where drivers pay about $15 to drive into the center city on weekdays, congestion went down by 30 percent, and public transit gained tens of thousands of new riders.

Could something similar happen in Seattle? O’Brien, the council member who started pushing for congestion pricing back in 2017, says he’s “feeling a lot more optimistic” now that Durkan “has shown that she is very interested in moving forward” with the concept. The trick, he says, will be demonstrating that people won’t get stuck in even worse traffic if they let go of their steering wheels. “Part of it is on [city leaders] to say, ‘We’re going to provide buses that have more space and aren’t stuck in traffic,’” O’Brien says. “If, in this new system, you can see that driving is more expensive and the bus will get you downtown faster, you’re going to see
the benefits.”

Editor’s note: The opening of this story, set in 2020, depicts a hypothetical situation. The Washington State Department of Transportation says that when the tunnel opens early in 2019, time-of-day tolls will vary from $1 on weekends to $2.25 during the afternoon peak. Currently, the Viaduct demolition is scheduled for completion mid-year 2019.

Afternoon Crank: Polls Test Taxing Uber and Challenging Mike O’Brien

1. There’s a new poll in the field, to gauge support for a fee or tax of up to $3 per trip with ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. The fee, according to the poll script, would raise “between $75 million and $100 million” for “housing for working families,” programs to help the homeless, “transportation programs to reduce congestion,” and benefits for ride-hailing drivers. The poll tests a number of positive and negative statements about the proposal, including (on the con side) the argument that higher prices will encourage more drunk driving, and (on the pro side) that drivers often make less than minimum wage and “are not entitled to many of the same work protections” as regular employees.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has been considering such a tax since at least September, when I reported that her office was considering a per-ride fee on ride-hailing customers. The city could unilaterally impose a fee on ride-hailing customers; in contrast, a toll on drivers who enter the center city—what most people think of when they hear the term “congestion pricing”— would require a public vote.

It’s unclear who’s behind the poll. Representatives for both Uber and Lyft say it wasn’t them, although Uber spokesman Nathan Hambley says the company “would be concerned about any proposal that hurts low income riders and decreases trips for drivers.” The company has said it supports broad-based congestion pricing. Mayor Durkan’s spokesman, Mark Prentice, says, “This is not a City-funded poll.” I have a call out to the Teamsters Local 117, which is working to unionize Uber drivers, to see if the poll is theirs. The mayor’s office says they don’t know who’s behind the poll; they did not immediately respond to a question about whether Durkan plans to propose a ride-hailing fee in the near future, and, if so, which programs such a fee would fund.

Support

2. Another poll—this one a robopoll in Seattle City Council District 6, where Mike O’Brien is the incumbent—is testing voter support for two potential council candidates: 36th District State Representative Gael Tarleton and Fremont Brewing co-owner Sara Nelson, who ran for citywide Council Position 8 last year but didn’t make it past the August primary. Tarleton didn’t respond to a call for comment, but her Twitter feed has focused an awful lot on city of Seattle politics lately; Nelson declined to say whether she plans to run again. O’Brien hasn’t said whether he plans to run for reelection.

If he does, he may have another opponent who wasn’t included in the poll—former city council member Heidi Wills, who lost to David Della (a one-term council member who slapped Wills with the moniker “Rate Hike Heidi” after she voted to raise electric rates) in 2003. Wills, who has spent most of her 15 years out of office as the  executive director of The First Tee, an organization that teaches golf to disadvantaged youth, says she is taking the next couple months to decide whether to run, and will make a decision by the end of January.

One possible sign that Wills is leaning “yes”: The former council member is running for a position on the executive committee of the Washington State chapter of the Sierra Club. O’Brien first got involved in politics through the Seattle chapter of the group, where he has volunteered for more then 15 years; currently, he serves on the Sierra Club’s national board. A position on the Sierra Club’s state leadership team could help inoculate Wills against charges that she lacks O’Brien’s environmental cred. Or it could mean nothing. Either way, it’s probably a good idea to bookmark the city’s 2019 campaign page, because the race for Position 6 is going to be crowded.

Morning Crank: Taxing Uber and Lyft; Stalling Safe Consumption

LyftLA.jpg

Image by PraiseLightMedia via Wikimedia Commons

 When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in April that her administration would study congestion pricing—a catchall term for strategies that place a price on driving a car into congested parts of the city, such as downtown and South Lake Union, in the hope of achieving some positive goal, such as lower emissions or faster transit service—she said she hoped to implement some kind of pricing scheme by the end of her first term, in 2021. Most people took this to mean that she would introduce a plan for cordon tolling—essentially, drawing an invisible ring around the center city and charging vehicles to enter. Because this strategy would require voter approval, Durkan’s team will need to figure out how to get around the obvious objections—creating a plan that doesn’t disproportionately harm low-income workers who rely on cars, for example, and that makes transit seem like a viable alternative to driving to people who choose to commute by car.

In the meantime, the mayor is considering another option: Charging Uber and Lyft riders a special tax that will increase the cost to use the car-hire platforms by a few bucks a trip—just enough, perhaps, to nudge some commuters onto buses or trains. According to the mayor’s office, half of all Uber and Lyft trips in Seattle include a trip through the center city. In addition, ride-hailing cars often circle around downtown waiting for the signal that someone needs a ride; this contributes to both congestion and pollution, and makes it harder for buses to move quickly through the area. City council member Mike O’Brien, who supports congestion pricing, says, “There seems to be pretty clear evidence that [Uber and Lyft are] causing congestion and that people are converting from transit to a lesser mode, which is riding in these [vehicles].” O’Brien says he has heard reports of companies in South Lake Union giving free Uber and Lyft shared-ride passes to employees, which creates an incentive to use those services instead of less-convenient transit. “There’s an argument, from my perspective at least, that Uber and Lyft are living in an unequitable world to their favor,” O’Brien says.

The Downtown Seattle Association’s annual commute numbers, which do not distinguish between calling an Uber for a ride and carpooling with a group of colleagues, and their annual commute survey does not indicate a major shift from transit to ride-hailing—yet. A University of California-Davis study last year showed that, in general, urban commuters are switching from transit to ride-hailing companies in record numbers. On average, people who live in major American cities use transit 6 percent less after they start using a ride-hailing service, according to the study. Surprisingly, perhaps, ride-hailing service users who also take transit are more likely to own cars, and to own slightly more cars, than people who just commute by transit; and non-transit users who use ride-hailing services are no less likely to own cars than non-transit users who don’t use ride-hailing platforms. According to the study, “The majority of ride-hailing users (91%) have not made any changes with regards to whether or not they own a vehicle.” As for those who have reduced their personal driving, the study concludes, “[They] have substituted those trips with increased ride-hailing use.”

2. Plans to open the nation’s first safe consumption site in Seattle appear to have foundered. According to multiple people familiar with discussions at the city about whether to fund a new safe consumption site, Mayor Jenny Durkan has not committed to fund the project in her upcoming budget proposal.

In 2016, a county task force on heroin and prescription opiate addiction unanimously recommended the creation of at least two safe consumption sites in King County—one in Seattle, the other somewhere else in the county. (Safe consumption sites allow drug users to consume substances by non-injection methods such as inhalation, which is generally safer and allows people who use drugs that are traditionally smoked or snorted to do so under medical supervision). Those plans stalled under political pressure, as city after city (including Auburn, whose mayor Nancy Backus was on the opiate task force) adopted laws preemptively barring safe consumption sites inside their borders. Last year, the Seattle city council appropriated $1.3 million to establish and operate a safe consumption site; in June, however, the council indicated it would opt for a mobile injection-only van, which would likely preclude consumption by means other than injection but would be cheaper and potentially easier than siting a permanent facility. The mayor’s office says the $1.3 million will be in its 2019 budget.

Support

Running a safe consumption site would require a new financial commitment of about $2 million a year. Durkan has already asked city departments to come up with budget cuts of between 2 and 5 percent in anticipation of a funding shortfall for 2019. In addition, the city budget office and council have to come up with around $10 million a year to pay for programs related to homelessness that Durkan paid for this year with one-time funding. In that climate, it’s hardly surprising that Durkan—who did not make safe consumption or reducing overdoses a campaign issue and has not made the proposal one of her legislative priorities—would be inclined to let it fall through the cracks, at least for now. On August 27, three days before Seattle advocates commemorated International Overdose Awareness Day with balloons and overdose prevention trainings in Westlake Park, deputy US attorney general Rod Rosenstein wrote an op/ed for the New York Times railing against safe injection sites, and specifically calling out Seattle’s plans to build a mobile injection van. “Injection sites destroy the surrounding community, creating “war zone[s]” with “drug-addled, glassy-eyed people strewn about.”

Seventeen years ago, a county task force on heroin and opiate addiction recommended many of the same measures the city and county are discussing today, including overdose response training, greater access to syringes, and other harm reduction methods, including (potentially) safe injection sites and encouraging drug users to use safer consumption methods. The report, and its recommendations, sat on a shelf for 14 years, with predictable consequences. The consequences of ignoring the recommendations of the 2016 task force will be equally predictable.

3.  It’s been  nine months since Scott Kubly, the former director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, resigned and was replaced on an interim basis by his deputy, Geron Sparrman. It’s been more than two weeks since Sparrman left to take a job at HNTB, a consulting firm that had numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle when Sparrman agreed to take the position, and Durkan announced that former Alaskan Way tunnel project director Linea Laird would take over as his replacement, also on an interim basis. And it’s been one week since the city finally posted the SDOT director position on the city’s official job bulletin, along with a brief description of the position and desired qualifications. According to the notice, interested candidates should contact Reffett Associates, an executive search firm with offices in Bellevue, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.