I haven’t said this very often — probably never — but Kshama Sawant just nailed it.

The socialist Seattle City Council member teed off this past week on the city’s draft plans of setting up a pricey cordon of photo tolls around downtown, as a way to curb traffic.

“It will be extremely burdensome and very unjust,” Sawant told a panel of Seattle transportation officials, who had just pronounced the congestion tolling idea “promising.”

Now regular readers know that I’m toll-skeptical at best — OK, it’s true, I’m a toll hater. It’s driven by reporting I did over the years about how the state’s system of photo tolling and fines can break you when you’re poor — in some cases even sending drivers into bankruptcy.

So I appreciated that Sawant, whom we often hear shouting through bullhorns, chose this time to methodically expose the idea of tolling all of downtown on the grounds that it will hammer the working poor.

“It’s fundamentally not going to be equitable,” Sawant said. “By definition these tolls are regressive and will hit working people the hardest.”


The city’s own preliminary data seemed to echo her point, showing that about the same share of lower-income workers as the rich would be hit by what are bound to be steep, double-digit tolls. There’s an effort on to somehow means-test the tolls, but so far it’s murky how that might work.

Seattle’s city transportation department looked at major cities that have used congestion tolling schemes to successfully drive down traffic and carbon emissions. They included London, Singapore and Milan.

Sawant correctly noted that Seattle bears no resemblance to any of them, most crucially in the quality and scale of our mass-transit system. The point of congestion tolling is supposed to be switching commuters to transit (not just raising money, right?) So the transit’s got to be there first or it’s simply punitive, she said.

“The reason a lot of people are able to not drive in London is because they have far superior public transportation,” Sawant said. “I’ve been to many of these cities you’re talking about. It’s apples and oranges …”

It’s the difference between a young city, ours, and older, more mature ones. It’s going to take time for Seattle to catch up on mass transit.

This is why, despite all the green rhetoric, companies continue to build massive parking garages in Seattle. They feel they have no choice — on countless routes, there just isn’t yet rapid, reliable transit.


Sawant is right on that Seattle talks a great game about concern for the working poor, yet is endlessly creative about hoovering money out of them with regressive charges.

There are plenty of anti-congestion schemes we could try that would cost drivers no money at all. Instead of charging tolls, the city could restrict access using license-plate numbers or stickers, as in China and elsewhere. But the simplest way to prioritize transit would be to just do it, immediately, by restriping more lanes to kick out the cars. Transit would work better, with about the only cost being the paint.

Instead, even as the city talked of tolling downtown for the purpose of keeping cars out, a different toll is about to be imposed that will push many cars in.

The new Highway 99 tunnel, after all the scorn it took, is working beyond anyone’s expectations. It’s funneling up to 80,000 cars per day out of sight and sound and, most importantly, removed from the congested downtown. That’s as many cars as were using the Alaskan Way Viaduct when it closed, but with fewer traffic jams and zero blight on the waterfront.

But this fall, the state plans to toll the tunnel, which its own studies say could divert thousands of drivers onto the downtown surface streets. It’s crazy — if there’s any roadway ever built in Seattle that we desperately want cars to keep using, instead of switching to alternate routes, it’s that tunnel.

Of course they’re all probably thinking that once that road gets tolled, then they might as well toll them all! Sawant’s surprisingly the only one so far who sees how that will turn Seattle into even more of a gated community than it already is.