As Mayor Jenny Durkan considers tolling downtown streets or taxing Uber and Lyft rides, Uber is doubling down on its support for tolls everyone would pay.
The ride-hailing company released an analysis this week of downtown tolls, known as congestion pricing, saying the policy could reduce travel times, increase transit use and bring in more than $100 million a year.
The findings broadly align with a city-commissioned report released earlier this year. But the new analysis gets more specific, contemplating a toll of up to $3.80 per day depending on the time of day drivers enter downtown.
Drivers would only pay once per day at the highest rate applicable to their trip and could save about six minutes on average trips during peak morning and evening hours, according to the white paper written by consulting firm ECONorthwest.
“It’s possible to have a low-cost [per driver] implementation with the right impacts to congestion and the ability to reinvest in public transportation,” said Chris Pangilinan, Uber’s head of global policy for public transportation.
It’s unclear what effect the Uber-funded report will have at City Hall, where elected officials have varying views on the controversial company and seven of nine City Council seats are on the ballot this year. But by providing an example of how much Seattle drivers might actually pay for congestion pricing, it could help shape public debate over an issue that up to now has largely played out in the abstract.
Cities like London and Stockholm charge congestion tolls, and New York approved congestion pricing this year. Seattle has for years discussed the possibility, but talks have gained more attention as the city confronts snarled traffic and climate change. Durkan said a tolling program could be in place by the end of her first term in 2021.
Durkan is also considering another charge, though: a fee only on ride-hailing app trips, which is opposed by Uber.
It’s not clear whether Durkan plans to implement one or both charges or when she will decide. A spokeswoman for Durkan said she could not comment on Uber’s analysis Tuesday, but “the mayor is committed to moving forward with congestion pricing in a fair and equitable way that includes community input.”
Congestion pricing in Seattle would have to pass a public vote.
The ECONorthwest analysis used data from Uber, the Puget Sound Regional Council and the U.S. Census to estimate that transit trips into downtown would increase by 4% under Uber’s pricing scheme. The charge of up to $3.80 would bring in $130 million a year, not accounting for the cost of running the program, according to the report.
Some skeptics of tolling worry about the burden on low-income drivers. The city-commissioned report included several possible strategies, including discounts based on income. Uber’s report suggests charging all drivers but then offering rebates for people with low incomes.
The white paper suggests a rebate program administered by downtown employers to low- to moderate-income employees; a voucher program similar to parking validation for people with low incomes making certain necessary trips like medical appointments; and a “dividend” paid to all low-income households.
The analysis assumes that $50 million a year in toll revenue would fund those programs.
“If half the folks were exempted from paying the toll, there would be no congestion reduction and that would make the whole exercise not worth doing,” said Matthew Kitchen, project director at ECONorthwest who authored the report. “You have to find a way to make people financially whole that doesn’t reduce incentives to avoid driving.”
But a rebate program would “front-load” costs to drivers, said Hester Serebrin, policy director at Transportation Choices Coalition in an email. While that might discourage driving, “this only works to reduce congestion if people indeed have a choice,” Serebrin said. “Many people have been priced out of transit-rich areas that provide a reliable and affordable alternative to driving.”
Transportation Choices Coalition supports a rate structure based on drivers’ incomes instead.
Of the total tolling revenue, the highest-earning 10% of households would pay about a quarter of the tolls, about the same share as paid by the lowest half of households by income, according to the ECONorthwest analysis.
The city-commissioned report found mixed results. People who make more than $75,000 a year would be more likely to pay than those making less than $50,000, according to the report, but people with low incomes north and south of downtown may own cars out of necessity and “therefore may experience greater negative impacts.”
Regardless of who pays, a flat charge would eat up a larger share of a low-income person’s money than that of person with a higher income, and that will leave the policy facing opposition from some on the Seattle City Council.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant said in a recent council meeting congestion pricing could be “burdensome” and “unjust” for some downtown workers.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold told The Seattle Times she opposes tolls on downtown streets. At a forum over the weekend, Herbold said she worries about the policy’s effect on West Seattle residents.
“There really needs to be an equity analysis of drivers based on where they geographically are arriving to downtown from,” said Herbold, according to video of the event.
“We should take a look,” Herbold added, “at whether or not there is an alternate approach like, for instance, using congestion pricing on Ubers and Lyfts instead.”