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The politics of congestion tolling

The politics of congestion tolling

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has announced plans to toll certain roads in the city to reduce congestion and carbon emissions. Although the details aren’t yet known, the plan has brought renewed focus on the idea of “congestion pricing” to address gridlock.

While some transportation experts see congestion pricing as a viable solution– at least in theory – the success of any plan depends on a combination of implementation and political will. A 2008 Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) study of a theoretical systemwide congestion pricing produced positive results and could work if implemented, but with the caveat if “done right.”

However, compounding the challenge of any efforts are what one former PSRC member describes as competing and contradictory attitudes about traffic coupled with inconsistent regional transportation and land-use policies.

There’s also a lack of political will: a 2015 poll conducted by the Transportation Futures Task Force found over half of Puget Sound voters were either opposed or “strongly opposed” to regional tolling.

Yet, transportation experts such as John Niles say congestion pricing is the “perfect solution, but people hate it.” He is the president of Global Telematics, a research and consulting firm.

“Every serious transportation professional has to recognize that pricing will have an impact,” he said. “It works. People are going to react to the price. It’s theoretically very sound.”

The problems arise when the plan isn’t holistic, he said. He points to the state Route 520 bridge from Bellevue to Seattle, where a toll was added to fund the replacement bridge. Although it reduced congestion on 520, that was because much of the traffic spilled over onto the Interstate 90 bridge.

Whether it’s a city or regional system, “in a way, you have to do it everywhere if you’re going to do it,” he said.

That was one of the recommendations made in the 2008 PSRC study, which examined the driving behavior of 450 participants before and after a theoretical “dynamic tolling” was set up based on traffic levels. “While most revenues are generated on a small portion of the toll roads, the secondary road network (arterials) should not be ignored, as diversion causes real problems with revenue loss and displaced traffic.”

The study also found “motorists made small-scale adjustments in travel that, in aggregate, would have a major effect on transportation system performance.”

But a Seattle-only toll could just push that traffic to nearby cities, says Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost. She writes that “people, businesses and cars may simply leave, and take emissions elsewhere. This could have a negative impact on Seattle’s economy, despite officials’ assumptions that thousands of drivers will submit and start to take transit.”

Also, initial toll rates could rise as traffic worsens. It’s a problem seen with dynamic tolling on the north I-405 segment between Bellevue and Lynnwood, where traffic increased by 11 percent in six months. One recommendation made to improve the travel times in the tolled lanes is to raise the rates higher than those originally set by the Washington State Transportation Commission.

The regional situation doesn’t look any better. The PSRC’s Transportation 2040 plan expects an estimated 4.5 million more trips by 2040, but only 10 percent of those trips will be transit. Despite the current gridlock, almost 60 percent of those future trips will be automobiles and trucks.

That perhaps reflects the Puget Sound’s “love hate relationship with cars,” says Maggie Fimia. “We love our cars, but we hate everybody else’s.”

She is a former King County Councilmember and PSRC Transportation Policy Board member, now involved with nonprofit Smart Transit.

She told Lens that when she was on the council there was a lack of consensus on how to address traffic. For some, it was a problem to be solved. For others, it was the answer, “because it gets people onto transit. Congestion is going happen no matter how much transit you have, but in those major cities (London, Paris, New York) there are viable alternatives for people. The other problem we have in our region that is prohibiting us from making real smart choices is we have not identified the problem. What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? If you can get consensus on that…you would be able to problem-solve.

“I’m not opposed to congestion pricing,” she added. “I think it is a tool that can be used and used wisely, but you have to have the alternatives for people, and we don’t. If the goal is to reduce car use and reduce emissions — give people more options for getting around. But if that was really the goal, then we would have stayed with buses and continued to build our bus system. They can reach neighborhoods very easily and very cheaply. But that was not the goal. The goal for certain people was to build rail. That was what it was all about. And they won.”

Congestion pricing could coincide with more transit options, but Fimia notes that transit requires greater density, something that local land-use policies don’t always encourage. “That’s the other love hate. We love transit, but we hate density. PSRC supposedly is the place where we come together to plan for the regional growth, land use and transportation. But then those people go home and manage their own cities that have their own zoning codes. They can do whatever they want.”

Fewer residential units means higher costs for those who can live where they work, while the rest must commute, adding cars to the roads. It’s a problem highlighted earlier this year by Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar. Housing experts have also weighed in on the correlation between high housing costs and increased traffic.

There’s also the issue of where the congestion pricing revenue would go, since it is collected to reduce traffic and not directly pay for roads. With voter support for systemwide tolling already low, safeguards on that money may be a must.

Privacy concerns would also have to be addressed, something the 2008 PSRC study’s principal author Matthew Kitchen noted back in 2008.

“Maybe we never are totally free during rush hour of some congestion,” Fimia said. “But we can certainly do things that make it less and not continue to grow worse and worse.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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