Widespread tolls could make chronic traffic congestion in Seattle and other cities "a thing of the past," a pioneering study says. Tolls could cut the...

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Widespread tolls could make chronic traffic congestion in Seattle and other cities “a thing of the past,” a pioneering study says.

Tolls could cut the average late-afternoon commute time from downtown Seattle to Tacoma by perhaps 40 percent. A typical rush-hour drive from Bellevue to Lynnwood could be trimmed by more than one-third, the Puget Sound Regional Council’s “Traffic Choices” report concludes.

But those results would be achieved only by imposing tolls on a scale never attempted anywhere before.

Drivers would pay a toll on almost every mile they drive — every freeway, every significant arterial. Global Positioning System (GPS) and cellular technology would track their travels. Tolls would be deducted from prepaid accounts.

Matthew Kitchen, the study’s principal author, acknowledges the region’s not ready for anything like that now. While such a regional “congestion-pricing” system is technologically feasible, he says, the big public-policy questions it raises — fairness, privacy — haven’t yet been answered.

And any proposal would encounter stiff opposition from people like former state Sen. Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island, a longtime toll skeptic. He says regionwide tolling is really about “rationing your roadways and harming your quality of life.”

But transportation policymakers are more open to tolls now than they were a decade ago. Drivers began paying a toll of up to $3 to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge when it opened last year. Next month “HOT” lanes — HOV lanes that commuters driving alone can use for a toll — will open on a stretch of Highway 167 in South King County. In London, all cars now pay a stiff toll to enter the central city.

Someday, says former state Transportation Commission Chairman Aubrey Davis, politicians will embrace regional congestion pricing, for two reasons — to generate revenue for transportation improvements and to help unclog roads by reducing demand.

“We’re going to have to lose a couple elections [on new transportation-tax proposals] before people will take this seriously,” Davis says. “I have no doubt we’re going to go down this road. I just don’t know how far, or how fast.”

The Puget Sound Regional Council, a four-county planning agency, spent six years planning and conducting the $3.1 million study, funded largely with federal dollars. It attracted international attention because it was the first effort anywhere to explore just what impact regionwide congestion pricing might have on driver behavior and traffic. The final summary report was released this month.

At the core of the study was a groundbreaking experiment: Researchers recruited drivers in 275 Seattle-area households to pay virtual tolls — with real-world economic consequences — then observed how their driving patterns changed.

The volunteers had devices mounted on their dashboards that tracked their trips and transmitted the information to a central computer. For about eight months in 2005 and 2006 they paid “variable” tolls, linked to congestion levels, that ranged from nothing late at night to 50 cents a mile on freeways during the late-afternoon peak.

The charges were deducted electronically from accounts funded by the study’s sponsors that were sized to match how much participants had been driving before the study.

Volunteers got to keep whatever was left in their accounts when the experiment ended. That gave them a real-world incentive to drive less, or drive at “cheaper” times or take “cheaper” routes.

For many, money proved a powerful motivator. Overall, participants took fewer trips and drove fewer miles.

Mail carrier Pat Christenson stopped taking Interstate 405 and started driving less-expensive back roads from her home between Totem Lake and Kingsgate to her job at the Kirkland Post Office.

She and her husband made other small changes in their driving habits. When the experiment ended, they pocketed about $500.

While there’s no longer any money in it, Christenson still drives the back roads to work. “I got used to it,” she says. “I think about the freeways and not wanting to be on them.” Plus, I-405 isn’t really any faster, she adds.

When the experiment was over, Kitchen and others plugged the results into the regional council’s computerized traffic model, which projects how traffic in King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties is likely to change under different scenarios.

The model calculated that, for some corridors, improvements in average peak-period afternoon commute times in 2010 could be dramatic:

• Downtown Bellevue to Tacoma, without tolls: 78 minutes. With tolls: 46 minutes. Average toll: $13.41.

• Downtown Seattle to Lynnwood, without tolls: 33 minutes. With tolls: 22 minutes. Average toll: $6.17.

Kitchen says the travel-time savings the model produced probably are conservative. If regional tolling actually were adopted, he says, some people probably would move closer to work, or work closer to home, reducing overall traffic volumes. The model didn’t account for that.

And real-world tolls would be different — perhaps lower — because planners would devise a toll schedule that is more nuanced than the relatively simple one the Traffic Choices study employed, he adds.

The final report concludes that, while it would be costly and complex, there are no technological barriers to implementing a Traffic Choices-type tolling system across the region. It estimates startup costs at about $750 million, annual operating costs at about $288 million.

Those costs could drop steeply as cellular technology advances, Kitchen says.

Over 30 years, the report estimates, tolls could generate $87 billion in today’s dollars. The fairness of any regional road-tolling scheme would depend to a great extent on how those dollars are spent, Kitchen says.

The study confirms higher-income people — people who could most afford the tolls — would benefit most if regionwide road pricing were adopted for real. As for the less affluent, “they’re worse off unless you do something beneficial with that [toll] revenue,” Kitchen says.

It could be used for road improvements, or better transit service. Or it could allow policymakers to roll back other taxes, perhaps the gas tax or vehicle-excise taxes.

The final report explores the question of privacy — the discomfort many feel about a system that could collect and store detailed information about their driving — but offers no solutions.

“I don’t think there is a magic bullet,” Kitchen says.

Safeguards against disclosure could be established, he says, but there’s no way to make them foolproof. It comes down to trust, Kitchen says, and that’s in short supply.

Davis suspects many people wouldn’t have a problem: “How many people don’t have a cellphone because of the privacy issue?” he asks.

Kitchen says the Traffic Choices results will be considered by the regional council’s planners and elected officials as they develop a regional transportation plan for 2030. That plan could call for no tolls, or a network of HOT lanes, or something more extensive, he says.

The study also could influence policy elsewhere. The Dutch government, which plans to adopt systemwide tolling, has followed it closely, Kitchen says.

To Horn, regional congestion pricing would signal a major cultural shift. “Our lives have gotten so much richer because of our ability to travel,” he says.

“What you’re saying here is, ‘I want you to stay home.’ Or, ‘I want you to live in cages, stacked on top of one another. I want you to live where you work, like in a company town.’ “

But Davis says that because driving is widely perceived as “free,” everyone pays — in wasted time, wasted gas and increased pollution.

“We don’t get anything for nothing,” he says. “We just think we do.”

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com