We say we’re freaked out about the high cost of living around here. But we’re sure not acting like it. If the cost of living seems excessive, and it does, then how are so many people cheerfully paying it? And who are they?
The good news is that it’s gotten so expensive here that we no longer gripe about the rain or the traffic.
“Cost of living overtakes traffic as worst part of living in Seattle area,” read the headline about a poll this week plumbing our deepest anxieties.
A survey of 2,000 locals found that angst about the high prices of stuff has rocketed up recently. In 25 years it has gone from not even rating a mention among Seattle-area residents to now being the “most-hated part of living in the Puget Sound region.”
Just the other day I was out for dinner at a not-very-fancy place and a companion ordered an $18 cheeseburger. Then I ordered a martini that by some punishing convergence also clocked in at $18.
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I was prepared to be outraged until I saw that one Seattle bar downtown now is serving a $200 martini.
I have daily whiplash like this. While I’m reeling that the cost of basic sustenance has jumped from one digit to two, the true price already is barreling from two digits toward three.
If the cost of living seems usurious, and it does, then how are so many people cheerfully paying it? And who are they?
My favorite example is the $10 top toll to use the Interstate 405 express lanes on the Eastside. Because the toll is both voluntary and fluctuates by demand, it’s a real-world test of how serious we are about all this cost-of-living kvetching.
The premise is that solo drivers can either pay to use the “fast lane,” or stay in the general lanes for free. So it’s a choice.
The more congested the traffic, the higher the price, which is recalculated every few minutes. On I-405 this toll ranges from 75 cents to $10. The theory is the top prices will keep the express lanes moving fast because only a small fraction of drivers would be willing to pay such steep fees.
But earlier this year a team of University of Minnesota researchers studied the roadway, and found that one problem with our $10 toll isn’t that it’s too high. It’s too low — probably way too low. So many drivers are willing to fork over $10 that the lanes reach the max price 15 percent of the time, and become congested.
On Tuesday, a typical traffic day, the top rate hit $10 just before 5 p.m. By 5:10 p.m. even portions of the express lane were marked as “stop and go” traffic on the state’s online traffic map.
“Once the maximum is reached, the lane volume can no longer be managed through pricing,” the study concluded. “This phenomenon is known as a facility breakdown … An increased maximum toll rate is recommended — required, even.”
The study didn’t peg what that higher toll might be. A state transportation official, Reema Griffith, interestingly told The Wall Street Journal that if the $10 cap were removed, the actual free market price would rise “exorbitantly.”
Even though it’s voluntary, it’s still politically a nonstarter, she said.
“From a public-acceptance standpoint that just wouldn’t be acceptable,” Griffith told the Journal. “We already have a lot of pushback from it hitting $10.”
See? This is our “it’s so crowded nobody goes there anymore” issue. In our minds, which must be cobwebbed from back when Seattle was a fishing village, that $10 toll is outrageous, as unthinkable as an $18 martini. But in the actual Seattle of the here and now, there are lines of fellow drivers and drinkers eager to pay far more.
Griffith said in a follow-up email that the state is trying to first ease congestion through other means, and so has no plans to raise the $10 cap.
But in other cities, similar voluntary lanes now sport tolls of $1.50 to $2 per mile. If applied to the 15-mile I-405 express corridor, that could mean a peak toll of 20 to 30 bucks.
There’s also one roadway with no toll cap, so it’s a true minute-by-minute test of “what’s it worth to ya?” Interstate 66, outside D.C., made headlines recently when its pay-whatever-you-will toll zoomed to $47 for a 9-mile stretch.
That’s $5 per mile. On I-405, that could equal a top toll of … $75!
Welcome to your future, Seattle, nearer than you think. Now I need one of those $200 martinis.