Charging drivers to enter downtown Seattle could ease traffic and curb emissions, but without the proper safeguards also could hit people of color and people with low incomes particularly hard.
A new consultant’s report by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) draws those conclusions but does not lay out a specific policy for Seattle, including how much drivers might have to pay, when or where.
Instead, consultants looked at what other cities have done, broad effects various policies might have, how to lessen impacts to people with low incomes and how to try to win over a skeptical public on a new price to drive.
“Congestion pricing is based on the idea that traffic congestion comes with high costs to society and to individuals in the form of air and climate pollution, traffic collisions, slower commutes, and lower economic productivity,” they wrote. Tolls can push some drivers to change how or when they travel.
Until recently, enthusiasm for congestion pricing has been largely concentrated outside the United States in cities such as Stockholm, London and Milan. Each city has implemented a pricing system and seen fewer vehicle trips, reduced carbon emissions and lower travel times, the report found. Revenues have “almost exclusively” gone to transit or other ways to get around.
In 2021, New York will become the first American city to implement congestion pricing, charging drivers to enter certain parts of Manhattan and using most of the money for transit.
Facing a confluence of construction and traffic problems and the climate crisis, Mayor Jenny Durkan has said she hopes to implement congestion pricing in her first term.
Yet, the report released Thursday is nearly four months late and signals an extensive process to come.
Seattle agreed to pay the consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard up to $200,000 for the study, which was originally due Feb. 4.
In response to a public-records request from The Seattle Times, SDOT said in late March the report was not finished and could not provide an estimated completion date. In April, the mayor’s office said it was awaiting more information about the policy’s possible effects on people of color. In response to another records request, SDOT said it was expected to release the report last week but did not.
Now, SDOT says it plans to “build a pricing model” in order to “estimate the magnitude of impacts and benefits on specific areas and communities.”
Eventually, a congestion pricing plan would have to pass a public vote, and the city should expect to face skeptical residents, the consultants warned. Public support for congestion pricing is likely to fall the closer the city gets to implementing it and then rise after it’s in place, the report said.
A December Seattle Times poll found 70% of respondents opposed charging a toll to go into downtown “as a way to reduce congestion and raise money for transit.”
The newly released report includes nearly a dozen possible policies, ranging from charging for parking to a fossil fuel-free zone. Four are likely to get real consideration from SDOT:
- Cordon pricing, which essentially draws a line around an area of the city and charges drivers who cross the boundary;
- Area pricing, which charges drivers for crossing the boundary and for driving within the boundary;
- A road-usage charge, in which drivers pay per mile; and
- Fleet pricing, which charges specific vehicle types like delivery trucks or ride-hailing cars.
Congestion in Seattle is driven by the concentration of jobs in the center of the city, the consultants wrote. Each day, about 250,000 people travel to or through central Seattle.
Charging drivers to drive in the center city on weekdays could reduce vehicle miles traveled by 14% to 23% from today and cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 6% to 10% from today, the report said.
But protections are necessary to make the system fair, the consultants wrote.
A downtown pricing system would affect at least 13% of regional drivers, the report authors estimated. Although that group of commuters includes “many fewer” people of color than white people, about the same percentage of people of color and white people would pay tolls under the pricing program.
The report found people who make more than $75,000 a year would be more likely to pay than those making less than $50,000.
But the analysis didn’t account for people who would drive through downtown to get to jobs elsewhere or people who drive into downtown for reasons other than work. It also didn’t account for the “magnitude of impact.” The same toll cost could be harder to pay for a person who makes less.
Meanwhile, data comparing income, vehicle ownership and transit service suggests that some people with low incomes north and south of downtown may own cars out of necessity and “therefore may experience greater negative impacts” from policies such as congestion pricing.
“A pricing program must be designed to address potential disparate impacts,” the consultants wrote.
To help drivers with lower incomes, the consultants suggest things like discounts based on income and cash payments for those without bank accounts or credit cards as well as better transit service, transit discounts, subsidies for bike and car share, and bike and pedestrian improvements.
Today’s practice of using property and sales taxes to fund roads — and where those dollars are spent — already favors people with the money to own cars, the authors wrote. Creating a more equitable system would depend not only on how drivers are charged, but how that money is spent.
Spending the revenue on transit, walking and bike projects would be the most equitable and road expansion the least, according to the report.
Using the money from congestion pricing to improve transit service could also help Seattle get residents on board, said Seattle City Councilmember Abel Pacheco.
“Seattleites love their investments in transportation … as long as we have a clearly defined objective and we’re meeting [that],” Pacheco said.
Durkan’s office has considered taxing Uber and Lyft trips, but has not formally proposed the policy. That strategy could be logistically easier to implement than charging all private vehicles, but charges likely would be passed on to consumers, the report said. Uber and Lyft have publicly supported congestion pricing and opposed fees specific to ride-hailing trips.
To come up with a fair congestion-pricing policy, the city must collect more data about who travels downtown, when and why, and determine the transit service needed to give people a real alternative to driving downtown, Hester Serebrin, policy director at the Transportation Choices Coalition, said by email.
“Commutes will only get longer and pollution worse as our city grows unless we take action,” Serebrin said.
A spokeswoman for Durkan said it was too soon to say exactly which type of pricing the mayor prefers or how Durkan believes the money should be spent.
Staff reporter David Gutman contributed to this report.