As New York becomes the first American city to charge tolls on city streets with a policy known as congestion pricing, Seattle is still waiting on a study of the policy promised months ago.
Under a contract signed last fall, the city will pay the consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard up to $200,000 for an analysis of the “impacts and benefits” of congestion pricing that will “lead with an equity lens,” according to the contract. But the due date for that work, Feb. 4, has come and gone and the report has not been publicly released.
Staff members for Mayor Jenny Durkan say Nelson\Nygaard delivered the report to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) by the deadline and SDOT provided it to the mayor’s office March 1. The mayor’s office asked the consultants to compile more data and now says it does not know when the report will be done and made public.
The mayor’s office declined to release the draft it received. Nelson\Nygaard declined to answer questions about the work done under the contract.
In response to a public-records request filed by The Seattle Times, SDOT said in late March the report was not finished and the department could not provide an estimated completion date.
In sending the draft report back, the mayor’s office was looking for more data about how the policy could affect communities of color in Seattle and how other cities have addressed equity, said Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan. But Ranganathan also said there is likely more granular study needed to figure out how various communities in Seattle commute.
The February snowstorm and the transition to a new SDOT director contributed to the delay in providing the report to the mayor’s office, said Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice.
The idea of tolling Seattle streets has been discussed for years, but this time comes against the backdrop of increased traffic congestion called the Seattle Squeeze, increasingly dire climate-change predictions and, now, New York taking action.
More than a decade ago, the Puget Sound Regional Council tested charging drivers for every mile they drove to study possible effects of tolling roads throughout the region at varying rates based on congestion. In 2009, the city commissioned a report about congestion pricing to address greenhouse-gas emissions.
Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien first requested the latest study through the council’s budget process in fall 2017.
His office initially expected the study last year, but the city didn’t sign the contract with Nelson\Nygaard until the fall. O’Brien said he was involved in some early work on the report but it then “disappeared into a bit of a black hole from my perspective.”
“It’s been a year and a half, so I’m kind of ready to see it,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien also raised concerns about equity, distinguishing between those who drive downtown as a “lifestyle choice” and those who have few other options.
“If 95 percent of people driving downtown in single-occupancy vehicles are attorneys who can afford to pay a fee, that’s one path,” O’Brien said. “If we see that 25 percent of people driving downtown would really struggle to pay this and don’t have alternatives, then we would have to unpack that a bit.”
It’s unclear the Nelson\Nygaard report will answer that question. The report will function as a “literature overview,” Ranganathan said, including how other cities have instituted congestion pricing and lessons learned.
“I think the public has a very limited understanding of this complex issue,” Ranganathan said. “This was meant to provide some context [about] why do it and how would you do it.”
Durkan’s administration has also considered taxing Uber and Lyft trips, records show. The ride-hailing companies have argued congestion pricing that tolled all trips, not just theirs, would be a better option.
Questions as fundamental as where and when the tolls would be in effect and what to do with the money raised remain unanswered. Plus, under state law, the idea would have to go to a public vote.
Voters may be skeptical. In a Seattle Times poll, 70 percent of respondents said they opposed charging a toll to go into downtown Seattle “as a way to reduce congestion and raise money for transit.” Twenty-six percent said they favored it.
Staff reporter David Gutman contributed to this story.