Traffic around Seattle is bad and getting worse. Solutions are scarce. But a groundbreaking local study — now a decade old — and the experience of other cities may point toward a remedy, albeit an unpopular one: Pay to use the roads.
Nearly 15 years ago, a local transportation planning agency tried a novel experiment.
They got about 400 volunteers and, using plug-in GPS devices, tracked their driving — distances, times, locations — for 18 months.
After a few months of tracking to develop baseline data, each driver was tolled for every mile they drove, with prices varying depending on the roadway and the time of day.
Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.
Drive to the corner store at midnight? That’s free. Drive on Interstate 5 at 5 p.m.? That costs 50 cents a mile.
Tolls showed up on the GPS device and were deducted from a driving budget that had been assigned to each driver. At the end of the experiment, each volunteer kept the cash that was left over.
“I found myself watching the meter go up, up, up,” one participant said. “And that influenced my choices.”
Another said, “Even if the meter wasn’t there, I would have changed my travel habits after seeing the first invoice.”
The study, conducted by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), found drivers making small changes in their habits. Add up those small changes and you get a major impact.
Systemwide variable tolling — charging varying amounts on all major roads at different times — “could make excessive reoccurring congestion a thing of the past,” the study concluded in 2008.
It’s not a popular answer to Seattle’s suffocating gridlock, but it is a simple one: You want traffic to go away? Pay to use the roads.
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In the decade or so since the PSRC completed its study, congestion has not become a thing of the past. On an average weekday in 2015, vehicles spent nearly 30,000 hours stuck in traffic on major Puget Sound-region freeways, nearly double the delays of 2011.
The region has experimented with variable tolling — on Interstate 405 and the Highway 520 bridge, most notably — with measured success and significant pushback.
More variable tolling is coming, once the Highway 99 tunnel opens.
But while 405’s express toll lanes have led to reduced travel times on the highway, they’ve obviously done little to alleviate congestion on other routes. And no matter what the toll rates are on 99, they’re going to push some drivers onto alternative routes that are already at capacity.
“When you toll one road and not its alternative, people shift from one route to the other because it’s cheap,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center.
After releasing its study, the PSRC called for systemwide tolling on all highways in the region by 2030. But it has since backed off from that recommendation and will likely remove it next year in a broad update to its transportation plan.
“I don’t think we had any false illusions that someone was going to implement this right away,” said Matthew Kitchen, who led the study for the PSRC and is now a project director for ECONorthwest, an economic-consulting firm.
“But the economic case is pretty compelling when you look at the magnitude of the effect of congestion on the economy. It’s not trivial.”
Few widespread tolling examples
Examples of systemwide tolling are sparse but largely successful.
The best-known one is in London, where during weekday daytime hours it costs drivers nearly $15 to enter the “congestion zone,” an 8-square-mile area of downtown. There is no charge on nights and weekends.
A year after tolling began in 2003, London found that congestion within the zone had declined by 30 percent. With tolling money reinvested in transit, bus service increased by 23 percent and bus ridership by 38 percent.
Car trips into the tolling zone fell by about 65,000 a day, with half of those drivers moving to public transit, about a quarter choosing to drive around the tolling zone and another quarter making other changes, such as dropping or rescheduling their trip.
Stockholm instituted its own tolling system, on a trial basis, in January 2006. The charge was anywhere from $1 to $7, depending on the time of day, to enter central Stockholm. The tolls were hugely unpopular. A local official from the party that pushed the plan called it “the most expensive way ever devised to commit political suicide.”
Seeing a path toward electoral gains, the opposition party forced a referendum on the tolling.
But, crucially, the referendum didn’t happen until after the trial period.
Traffic volume dropped by about 22 percent after the tolling went into effect, leading to congestion decreases of 30 to 50 percent.
After the seven-month trial, 53 percent of Stockholm voters chose to keep the tolling.
In the years since, the political debate has switched from whether there should be tolling to what the charges should be and where the revenue should go.
“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.”
In June 2011, after years of experimenting with tolling only the highest-polluting vehicles, 79 percent of Milan, Italy, voters chose to implement a broad tolling scheme.
The city charged drivers about $5.60 to enter its downtown core on weekdays. The tolling went into effect in January 2012. But just six months later, in response to a lawsuit from opponents, a preliminary court decision abruptly halted tolling. The city, unprepared for the ruling, and unwilling to give up on tolling, made no changes to either transit service or parking policy.
Two months later, after a subsequent court decision, the tolls were reinstated.
This gave researchers a unique opportunity: They could study the effects of Milan’s tolling both before and after a natural “control period” when tolls were removed.
They found that the tolls reduced traffic by about 15 percent, but had a much larger effect on areas with poor access to public transit. This, researchers wrote, indicated that people who lived nearer to transit were already eschewing cars for buses, and thus the tolls had much less impact.
“Changing time for money”
The closest any American city has come to instituting systemwide tolling was in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2008 push for an $8 fee for drivers entering mid- and downtown Manhattan was axed by the state Legislature.
Around Seattle, a petition against the toll lanes on 405 has drawn tens of thousands of signatures.
In a 2015 poll sponsored by the PSRC, 84 percent of Puget Sound-area residents said traffic congestion was a serious or critical problem, but 56 percent said systemwide tolling was a bad or very bad idea, even if it replaced current taxes, such as the gas tax.
In last year’s campaign for governor, one of Republican challenger Bill Bryant’s key promises was to remove some of the 405 toll lanes.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee responded not by endorsing the toll lanes, but by saying they were approved before he took office and pointing out that Bryant had supported tolling in the past.
State Sen. Curtis King, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the region will have to look at broader tolling as a way of funding construction and maintenance of specific road projects. But he’s hesitant about using tolls to ease congestion by changing people’s driving habits.
“We have to be very careful about trying to change the dynamics of what people want to do,” King, R-Yakima, said. “We’re supposed to be here trying to serve individuals, not change their minds.”
Washington actually has a long history of tolling, but only for specific projects. Virtually every major bridge in the state was built with toll money, although the tolls were generally withdrawn after construction costs were paid off.
When the Longview Bridge, which spans the Columbia River, opened in 1930, it charged a $1 round-trip toll, or nearly $15 in today’s dollars.
Politically, it’s been far easier, however, to toll new projects than to toll roads that drivers are accustomed to using for free.
There’s good reason for that. When you toll a new road, everyone can decide whether they want to pay to use it. But when you add a toll to an existing road, you’re affecting decisions people have already made — decisions about where to live and where to work. You’re changing the rules of the game halfway through.
“People have built their lives around a trade-off of paying for travel with some combination of time and money,” Hallenbeck said. “In theory, just changing time for money is not a problem. In reality, there are many people who don’t have the money to pay to gain time back. That’s a huge problem. That is an extreme hardship on those people.”
The plan studied by the Puget Sound Regional Council is different from those in use in London, Stockholm and Milan. The European cities use what’s called cordon tolling: draw a line around the most trafficked area of the city and charge to drive there.
The PSRC study charged tolls based on miles driven, with one price for every major highway in the region and another price for every arterial street. All routes were free during overnight hours, but otherwise varied, from 5 cents up to 50 cents per mile, depending on time of day.
If the system of tolling was applied to every car on the road, not just 400 volunteers, researchers estimated dramatic results — but also dramatic costs for those not willing or able to change their commutes.
An average evening rush-hour trip from Seattle to Tacoma (between 4 and 7 p.m.) would drop from 68 minutes to 39 minutes, according to the 2008 study. But the peak toll for that trip would be around $17. Make that drive at 3 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. and it would cost only about $5.
The 2008 study found the evening commute from Seattle to Everett dropping from 52 minutes to 34 minutes, but at a toll cost of about $14. Bump that drive back to 7:30 p.m., and it would cost less than $3.
Any such plan would require the approval of the Legislature. But Seattle could, with voter approval, institute some sort of tolling within the city’s boundaries without the Legislature.
Envision, for instance, a cordon system that charged varying rates, depending on the time of day, for trips into downtown and South Lake Union.
A 2009 study, commissioned by the city, recommended variable tolls as a way to lower the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions, deal with congestion and raise revenue for transit.
But tolling doesn’t seem to have gotten any more popular, and Seattle’s current and future leaders aren’t much interested.
Mayor Ed Murray has made no moves toward tolling and didn’t respond to questions about it.
And of the six major candidates to replace Murray, only one — former Mayor Mike McGinn — expressed any openness to a city-implemented tolling plan.