Uber's vow to lobby for congestion pricing in Seattle could be the biggest boost yet for a City Hall effort that's certain to encounter political roadblocks.
Uber says it plans to spend money lobbying for congestion pricing in Seattle as part of a $10 million push for “sustainable mobility” policies in various cities.
The ride-hail app company and its rival, Lyft, have previously expressed support for the idea of tolling downtown streets in Seattle, where Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration is working to develop a proposal. But Uber’s new commitment to actively press for congestion pricing in the city, shared with The Seattle Times last week, could be the biggest boost yet for an effort certain to encounter political roadblocks, including concerns about affordability.
Though several foreign cities use congestion-pricing setups to reduce car travel in busy areas at busy times, no American city has a widespread tolling system.
Ride-hail companies want to put as many of their drivers on the road as they deem necessary and would rather see cities adopt tolls than put caps on ride-hail vehicles. The companies also have apps that can easily account for congestion pricing.
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“We are going to invest $10 million over the next three years,” Uber spokesman Nathan Hambley said in an interview, referring to an announcement by CEO Dara Khosrowshahi last month about the public-policy spending.
“Part of that is going to go toward lobbying for congestion pricing … It’s a politically difficult case to make, but we feel strongly it’s good public policy,” Hambley added, saying the campaign will include lobbying in Seattle.
The spokesman didn’t say exactly how much money the company plans to spend in the city.
Uber shelled out $350,000 on ads and phone calls earlier this year to back a congestion-pricing effort in New York City that mostly stalled, and it plans to spend more there next year, The New York Times reported. Lawmakers did pass surcharges on taxi and ride-hail trips into Manhattan.
The support from ride-hail companies for tolling has come as they have caught flak for contributing to traffic. The companies were responsible for 94 million additional miles in the Seattle area in 2017, with only about 40 percent of passengers switching from driving or taking a taxi, according to an independent study.
That 94 million miles amounts to only about two days of driving in the Seattle area, Uber countered.
The companies would prefer that local governments impose tolls, which can easily be passed on, than adopt caps specific to ride-hail vehicles. Uber and Lyft already use dynamic pricing on their apps.
Seattle imposed a ride-hail vehicle cap in 2014, then quickly repealed it. New York City recently adopted a cap.
“Uber’s success is tied to the success of cities. Cities aren’t successful if people can’t move around them,” Uber general counsel Tony West said in an interview in Seattle, calling congestion pricing effective.
West said many of Uber’s rides in the area start and stop outside downtown. “Where our business is growing fastest, where the bulk of that growth is occurring, it’s occurring in North Seattle and South Seattle,” he said.
Uber and Lyft have experience lobbying in Seattle, having battled local officials over data, industry regulations and driver rights. The company paid lobbyists $8,800 for work at City Hall from November 2016 through September 2018, according to city records.
Uber may soon rev up that work, with the City Council now seeking more data from ride-hail companies and weighing whether to impose a minimum fare rate.
Before the council passed a driver unionization law in 2015 to address concerns about low pay, Uber ran ads in Seattle with drivers praising the company. The law has been tied up in the courts.
Durkan’s pledge to develop a congestion-pricing scheme is still in its early stages, with the mayor saying she hopes to have a system in place by the end of 2021. But the effort appears to be moving ahead. The mayor’s proposed 2019 budget includes $1 million to continue studying road tolling, building on $200,000 in this year’s budget allocated by Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
An initial report is due later this year and will include an equity analysis, an evaluation of pricing mechanisms, a legal review and a blueprint for public engagement, said Durkan spokeswoman Stephanie Formas.
The Durkan administration is counting on additional money from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which recently awarded Seattle a $2.5 million grant to help the city advance multiple policies, including congestion pricing.
“We applaud Mayor Durkan’s commitment to put Seattle at the forefront of U.S. cities taking bold steps to address climate change and traffic congestion,” Hambley said.
He said Uber looks forward to working with the mayor, O’Brien and others to “create incentives for everyone to share our limited space more efficiently.” In a statement, spokeswoman Lauren Alexander said Lyft “is fully supportive of comprehensive congestion pricing.”