London does it. Singapore does it. Stockholm does it. New York is starting it. And now Seattle is considering becoming one of the cool kids who charge people to drive downtown.
A Seattle Congestion Pricing Study (PDF) report will be on the agenda Tuesday afternoon as Seattle Department of Transportation representatives will begin the discussion with the City Council about how Seattle might implement some sort of congestion pricing program. The study doesn’t really get into details or suggestions of how Seattle might implement a program. It gives an overview of how such programs work in other cities, and suggests how Seattle might take the next steps toward developing a program of its own.
Some of the study’s findings will make you want to implement a plan immediately:
In every case, congestion pricing has reduced vehicle trips (by 10% to 44%), reduced CO2 emissions (by 2.5% to 22%), and lowered travel times (by 10% to 33%).
Congestion pricing can take a number of different forms. The one common denominator in all of them is an area is designated for pricing. Basically, draw a circle (more or less) on a map, and attach conditions to people who want to go inside the circle.
- Cordon pricing is what many people think of when they consider congestion pricing. When someone drives into the circle from outside, they pay a fee.
- Area pricing is similar, but it also charges people for leaving the circle, and for trips within the circle.
- Fleet pricing means only charging a particular class of vehicles such as ride sharing vehicles (and cabs) or commercial vehicles.
- A fossil-free zone charges the cordon price, but also forbids gas powered vehicles from entering some areas at all.
- License-plate zone restricts cars based on their license plate numbers, so plates that start or end with a certain letter or number can only go into the area on certain days.
There are also tolling schemes, like charging per mile, or charging tolls on arterials.
In case studies cited by the report, each of the options generally worked: traffic went down, greenhouse gas emissions went down, travel times became more reliable, and additional revenue helped fund investments in mass transit and other programs.
The study noted that four options might be worth more study for Seattle: cordon pricing, area pricing, fleet pricing, and the per-mile charge.
While there are a number of different ways to implement a pricing scheme, one of the major decisions involves the goal. Is the idea just to reduce traffic, or would the city also be trying to reduce emissions, or generate additional revenue, or something else? Designing a system that maximizes one of these goals won’t necessarily maximize the others.
Any system is also likely to shift traffic patterns as drivers find ways to skirt around the boundary.
There’s also the question of implementation. Where, exactly would the borders be? How would charging work from a logistical standpoint? It might be possible to install systems similar to the good to go system on the 520 bridge. But would drivers allow the government to place trackers in their car to measure a per-mile pricing scheme?
And of course, there is an equity issue. Flat pricing structures would place a higher burden on lower-income people than it would on wealthier people. But there could be ways to mitigate those impacts, such as using the money generated to expand transit options in target communities with more lower-income residents. Or, the pricing system could charge on a sliding scale based on income.
Dealing with equity would be a top priority for the Transportation Choices Coalition, nonprofit advocacy group, said Hester Serebrin, policy director of the group. Serebrin said her group was happy equity was a focus of the report.
She notes that while there will have to be trade-offs, there might be opportunities for some creative thinking in implementing the program. For example, some of the revenue generated could be used to reduce taxes in other areas – such as the sales tax – and might help move the region to a move progressive taxing structure that could help lower-income residents.
Before it could be implemented, any program would need to win referendum of Seattle voters. (Sorry, folks who drive here for work but don’t live here, you don’t get a say.) The report explains that in other cities, there is strong initial support of the concept, which falls off as details emerge. The support level bottoms out just before the program starts as people are nervous, but generally support increases after its up and running.
Serebrin noted that while people may balk at a new toll, there is already a cost to driving downtown in terms of parking, gas, and time lost to traffic jams. People who decide to avoid the toll by taking a bus would also help themselves avoid these other costs.
SDOT retained a consultant for the report funded by an $200,000 appropriation to study the impacts and benefits of congestion pricing. The council has also appropriated $1 million in the 2019 budget to fund a second phase of the study to include “community engagement, financial and transportation modeling of scenarios, and evaluation of potential equity impacts and benefits, pricing tools and options, technology options and impacts to businesses and roadway users.”
The next step, according to the current report, is to define Seattle’s goals for its program which can then inform what sort of program and pricing options will work best to meet those goals. As you can see from SDOT’s diagrams of the planning process, there is a long road ahead.
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