Seattle should not toll city streets or implement a congestion charge downtown.
These charges would do little to curb automobile usage in the Seattle area. But they would make Seattle less accessible, more inequitable and a less appealing place to live, work, shop and be entertained.
Seattle faces enough challenges attracting visitors from the greater Puget Sound to support its stores and entertainment venues, including publicly funded facilities such as the upcoming waterfront park and aquarium. Within the city, existing traffic hurdles are already making the north and south ends more isolated.
The state of Washington should also oppose Seattle transportation experiments that worsen congestion on Interstate 5. Tolling downtown would encourage even more drivers to use I-5 to get through and around the city.
New York is becoming the first U.S. city to implement a congestion toll, in Manhattan, to reduce congestion and help fund its transit system.
The Seattle area, in contrast, has abundant transit funding, with more than $100 billion committed regionally. Sound Transit also has authority to perpetually collect taxes to fund operations. Vehicle owners already pay special fees for this and Seattle residents pay additional vehicle fees to supplement transit funding.
If Seattle were truly in a bind, it should start not with tolls but transportation impact fees on new developments. Impact fees are already authorized by state law and used by other cities, to make growth pay for its impact on infrastructure.
Instead, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is exploring tolls that would fall hardest on street users who can least afford them, including blue-collar workers, families with young children and others who must use cars. Least affected would be wealthy urbanites and tech workers with subsidized transit passes.
Either way, Seattle must increase transparency. State law requires big cities to monitor congestion and prevent growth from overwhelming transportation infrastructure. Unlike Eastside cities that do this with letter grades, clearly indicating which streets are performing or failing, Seattle uses an opaque and esoteric system that obfuscates rather than informs the public. It publishes annual traffic reports that bizarrely say nothing at all about congestion.
If Seattle wants to reduce vehicle emissions, it should prioritize congestion reduction in street design. Its approach should be based not on a Utopian fantasy of a carless city, but the fact that cars will continue to be a major mode of transportation.
Even if user fees are added regionally to roads, and transit investments continue apace, automobiles will still handle 74 percent of trips in central Puget Sound in 2040, according to the latest Puget Sound Regional Council transportation plan. Transit will handle 5 percent of trips in 2040, up from 3 percent in 2014. Yet overall vehicle miles traveled per day will rise 22 percent and hours lost to delays will increase 44 percent.
That means drivers will already pay a steep price for congestion and do everything they can to avoid it, even without Seattle collecting yet another fee.
Congestion charges should be a one-way ticket out of office for any elected official.