If Mayor Jenny Durkan implements widespread tolling of city roadways, Seattle would be the nation’s first city to establish such systemwide tolling.
Seattle will develop a plan to toll city roadways as part of its efforts to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse-gas emissions, Mayor Jenny Durkan said Tuesday.
Details of what such a plan might look like are sparse, and will hinge on a tolling study focused on downtown neighborhoods that should have initial results later this year.
While several foreign cities use broad congestion-pricing schemes to reduce car travel in their most-clogged downtown areas, no American city has established a similar widespread tolling system.
Durkan said she was hopeful a congestion-pricing system could be in place by the end of her first term, in 2021.
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“Obviously, we’ve got to work with stakeholders, we have to get through a lot of those things, but I think it makes a lot of sense for us to move to congestion pricing to, one, increase mobility and safety downtown and, two, to really restrict some of those greenhouse gases that are released in the urban corridor,” the mayor said in an interview.
Durkan said during her campaign last fall that the city should explore congestion pricing.
Seattle could implement tolling within the city without the permission of the state Legislature, but it would almost certainly require the approval of city voters.
In 2015, 56 percent of Puget Sound-area voters said systemwide tolling was a bad or very bad idea, according to a poll from the Puget Sound Regional Council.
Congestion pricing can take a number of forms, and it’s unclear which the city may pursue.
Charging varying amounts to use an entire roadway or just individual lanes — like on Interstate 405 — to discourage rush-hour traffic is a form of congestion pricing.
So is so-called cordon tolling, where a heavily trafficked area (think downtown and South Lake Union) is virtually “cordoned” off and tolls are charged to enter the area.
New York City has been discussing cordon tolling in Manhattan, without taking action, for more than a decade.
Durkan is proposing congestion pricing as part of a push to cut the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Seattle’s four previous mayors have all tried, and mostly failed, to reduce the city’s carbon output, as a booming population has offset decreases in per-person emissions.
Transportation is responsible for about two-thirds of Seattle’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and most of Durkan’s proposed changes focus on that sector.
The mayor also wants to make Seattle much more hospitable to electric cars. She said she will introduce legislation requiring that new developments (or renovations) that build parking also include electric-vehicle charging stations.
And she wants to continue adding to the city’s fleet of electric vehicles “to phase out the use of fossil fuels in all fleet vehicles.”
“We want to make, ideally, charging stations as frequent as gas stations,” Durkan said.
Revenues from congestion pricing would be used to increase transit service throughout the city and to support more electric transportation infrastructure, Durkan said.
“We want to make it easier for people to get on transit so they don’t have to drive,” she said. “We as a city and as a region have to make real on the promise of frequent transit service.”
Durkan’s climate action plan, spurred along by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, also aims to develop programs to increase building energy efficiency around the city.
“If our country is going to do anything significant on climate, the leadership has to come from states and cities,” Durkan said.
Limited tolling is already coming to downtown Seattle, with the opening of the Highway 99 tunnel, scheduled for later this year. But the state Transportation Commission continues to struggle deciding how much to toll and when to start tolling.
Whatever price the agency settles on, the tolls will cause some drivers to skip the tunnel, pushing more cars onto already suffocating downtown streets.
That’s why, last year, the City Council authorized $200,000 to study the effects of the tunnel’s tolls and to explore congestion pricing in Seattle.
“The study would focus on the broader equity implications of congestion pricing in Seattle (particularly who is driving at what times) and explore options, such as the idea of pricing downtown Seattle exits, to ensure that transit service continues to operate reliably,” the proposal for the study said.
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who proposed the study, said last fall the city was “a long ways” from considering congestion pricing but that the study would be useful information to have when that discussion did happen.
O’Brien’s office said Tuesday that the study would likely be put out for bid in the next couple of weeks and they hope for initial findings by October.
Durkan said that study would be the “starting point” for a plan on congestion pricing, “looking exactly where those corridors are where it makes sense both from a city betterment project and a greenhouse gas project.”
Seattle has studied congestion pricing previously.
A 2003 study by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that regionwide variable tolling — charging varying amounts on all major roads at different times — “could make excessive reoccurring congestion a thing of the past.”
A 2009 study, commissioned by the city, recommended tolls as a way to lower the city’s greenhouse- gas emissions, deal with congestion and raise revenue.
And, while not exactly tolling, the state is currently studying a tax on every mile driven, as a way to replace the gas tax.
Foreign cities that have implemented widespread tolling — London, Stockholm and Milan are prominent examples — have generally faced public opposition that faded away after the system was put in place and traffic congestion decreased.
“Road pricing tends to poll poorly,” Matthew Gibson, an economist at Williams College who has studied tolling, said in an interview last year. “After people experience it for a while, support tends to increase.”
New York City is the only other American city to look seriously at congestion pricing, but it has repeatedly backed away.
Just last week, New York legislators agreed on a budget that did not include Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s much-discussed proposal for a nearly $12 daily fee to drive into midtown Manhattan.