Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last year that the city will develop a plan to toll city roadways, part of its efforts to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse-gas emissions. And the state plans more toll lanes on I-405 in the coming years.
People don’t like tolls.
An overwhelming number don’t like the idea of tolling downtown Seattle, to try to address traffic congestion. Most don’t want to add more variably-priced freeway lanes, like on Interstate 405. And a big chunk of people think that the main effect of tolls is penalizing drivers who can’t afford to pay.
Those are the results of a new Seattle Times poll that surveyed city and county residents on potential solutions to the region’s transportation woes.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced last year that the city will develop a plan to toll city roadways, part of its efforts to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse-gas emissions.
Such a plan remains only in the research stages, and Durkan has said little publicly about it since her announcement nine months ago. The last two city budgets have included a total of $1.2 million to study the idea. Tolling city streets would almost certainly require the approval of either the state Legislature or Seattle voters.
And Seattle poll respondents aren’t wild about the idea.
A huge majority — 70 percent — said they either oppose or strongly oppose “a toll to go into downtown Seattle as a way to reduce congestion and raise money for transit.”
Only 26 percent said they favor or strongly favor the idea.
“Not much love for tolling,” said pollster Stuart Elway, noting that there was “slightly more support in Seattle than in the suburbs.”
The idea was the second-least popular of seven transportation-related proposals that The Seattle Times polled and that local officials have discussed recently.
Adding more bike lanes is more popular (although not that popular). More bus lanes is more popular. Expanding the downtown streetcar is more popular. Charging impact fees on new construction is more popular.
Only allowing more apartment buildings to be built with no parking proved less popular.
Seattle-based Elway Research conducted the poll last month by cellphone and landline, resulting in a sample size of 419 people in Seattle and 407 people in King County (including Seattle). The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percent. Seventy-five percent of the respondents were homeowners, compared to about 57 percent in the county.
Durkan, in an interview last week, stressed that the city is at the very beginning of discussing congestion pricing and what it might look like. She said she wanted to make sure that any tolling system didn’t disadvantage low-income people.
“Having grown up here, I don’t think we’re a region that has ever seen a toll we like,” Durkan said. “We have to have a real conversation about what the benefits are.
“I think people will really like a city that does not have so many cars in the downtown area. It’s better for the climate, it’s better for health, it’s better for the community.”
Countywide, respondents aren’t anxious to expand the more limited form of congestion pricing that we already have.
Sixty-one percent of respondents oppose or strongly oppose adding “toll lanes where the price varies with congestion — like the lanes on I-405.” Only 37 percent favor the idea. Nevertheless, this year the state plans on beginning a five-year project to widen I-405 between Bellevue and Renton, creating two new express toll lanes in each direction.
Jessica Spytek, 60, a health-care strategist who just moved from Queen Anne to Bainbridge Island, said the region’s public transit isn’t yet at the level it would need to be to give people an alternative to tolled roads.
“I just don’t think it’s built out,” she said. “We need people to come into the city, there’s entertainment and education that people who are farther out don’t take advantage of because of tolls and traffic.”
No American city has implemented a broad congestion pricing plan of the type that Durkan has proposed. New York City has been working to charge a toll to drive into the most congested areas of Manhattan for more than 10 years, but plans keep getting bogged down in the state Legislature.
But foreign cities that have done downtown tolling — London is by far the most prominent — have found success, with less traffic congestion and more revenue for public transit.
“Road pricing tends to poll poorly,” said Matthew Gibson, an economist at Williams College who has studied tolling. “After people experience it for a while, support tends to increase.”
Stockholm instituted a downtown tolling system in 2006. It was hugely unpopular. A local official from the party that pushed the plan called it “the most expensive way ever devised to commit political suicide.”
The opposition party forced a public referendum to repeal the tolls. But it didn’t happen until they’d been in place for seven months. Congestion decreased by 30 to 50 percent in the interim. The referendum failed. By 2014, two-thirds of the public and every major political party supported the tolls.
But, locally, respondents don’t see tolls as primarily a traffic-reducer.
Asked what the main impact of tolls is, 42 percent of countywide respondents said “they penalize drivers who can’t afford to pay,” the most popular answer. Second most-popular, at 24 percent was “they provide money to build and maintain roads without raising taxes.”
“They reduce traffic congestion” came in last, with only 11 percent of respondents citing that as the main impact of tolls.
Annelise Wagner, 29, a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Washington, favors expanding public transit, but doesn’t like the regressive nature of tolls — you’re charged the same amount no matter how much money you make.
“They disproportionately harm the poor,” Wagner said. “If you’re commuting to your minimum-wage job, or you’re commuting to your high-paying tech job, it’s the same price. I do think it might work, I just think it’s probably not the best approach.”