Is congestion tolling right for Seattle?

Is congestion tolling right for Seattle?
An ECONorthwest study claims that a congestion tolling system in downtown Seattle could reduce travel times by 30 percent. However, some warn that it could discourage businesses from relocating there or staying in the area. Photo: freepik.com

A new study claims that a congestion pricing system for downtown Seattle could save drivers $90 million in travel time reductions while also providing the city with $130 million annually in revenue that could be used for a “congestion dividend” to low-income households.

Conducted by ECONorthwest and commissioned by Uber, the study concluded that a properly designed dynamic tolling in the downtown corridor could reduce travel times during peak hours by 30 percent. However, some members of the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) expressed reservations at a Dec. 17 meeting, cautioning that such a program could encourage businesses to either leave or stay out of the affected area.

Under the study’s scenario, different zones would have varying toll rates depending on the time of day, though a vehicle would only have to pay once to enter a zone.

“We were able to demonstrate…that you could expect to see some significant travel time savings especially during the peak commuting periods in the morning and in the afternoon,” ECONorthwest Senior Policy Advisor Matthew Kitchen said at the Dec. 17 meeting. He added that the toll rates would need to be “high enough that there would be some significant reductions in volume of traffic during those higher toll periods but not so high that you would see unnecessary diversion of trip-making activity.”

Kitchen also said the tolls need to apply to all vehicles. “If the system doesn’t apply sort of uniformly to everyone who’s contributing to the underlying congestion problem, that is going to be both ineffective and unfair.”

According to the study, the toll rates would be highest between 7 and10 a.m. and again from 3 to 6 p.m., though the afternoon peak period would generate more than twice the revenue of morning peak-period times. The $130 million in toll revenue would in part pay for a $25 congestion dividend to low-income households, as well as $80 per month to downtown employees whose wages are at or below the regional median income.

However, WSTC member Shiv Batra warned that a toll zone could have the same detrimental effect on the downtown business climate as the city’s proposed head tax. “Is your study looking at how many of the businesses…will not come to Seattle and the loss of revenue for the city of Seattle by putting tolling on it? Your job ought to be advising the city that ‘if you do this and we draw this huge boundary, it will have a devastating impact in the development of the city itself, just like parking has gone through the roof in Seattle, hurting all the small businesses’.”

Kitchen said it would be unreasonable to think a program such as the one they were discussing would have no effect on business location.

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