Lately people have been tossing around an idea which I find, at best, dubious. The concept is simple: Add a freeway toll that varies – charging people more when traffic is heaviest, and presumably encouraging them to choose other methods of transport. This in itself sounds great – some people would shift to transit, and some would shift to working other hours, based on how congested the roadways are.
Wait a minute. Let’s say I live somewhere like Renton, and work at the UW (to allay potential confusion, I personally do neither). There’s virtually no effective transit service between those points – or most other regional commutes. I have to work on the UW’s schedule – a few commuters can’t change the schedule of the chemistry library or move a class, and I have to be there when students need me.
So, as that Renton-UW user, I’m representative of a large voting bloc in the region. I might be willing to take two trains to work, but I’m not about to take two buses when that’s slower than me driving – they sit in the same traffic I do. I have little choice – so I would start to consider this a tax. An unfair one, too, as it disproportionately affects little old me, an already struggling service employee who can’t afford to live in the city. I would also have to be reminded of this tax every day – unlike a property tax or income tax, this tax would be simple and highly visible. I would rally against it.
Now, let’s step back. That guy I’ve been describing? There’s a small chance any one of them would become a new Tim Eyman – and they would win. Any projects funded with congestion pricing would be flogged to death, and we’d start back at square one – just like many transit agencies were forced to when they lost the ability to collect MVET (a car tab renewal fee). How much money did Sound Transit have to spend on legal fees to defend the MVET – just to pay bonds issued after the public had already voted for them? How much service did King County Metro have to cut while they scrambled to get a sales tax to match the lost revenue?
The issues, as I see them:
- There are no alternatives yet for many drivers. Sounder service is already packed – people are riding it as it becomes available. We don’t have that much rail (yet).
- We’re already seeing rising energy costs that are encouraging infill development (converting parking lots to larger structures) in the city core. That will also help increase transit ridership and give more people new choices.
- This would be viewed by many as a tax, and a contentious one at that.
- Whatever is funded by this would nominally see revenue *decrease* over time, rather than increase. There would be no incentive for the programs funded to actually reduce congestion, as they’d lose money!
- Reducing the number of people who travel will have a negative economic impact on the region.
I’ve been hearing from the local Sierra Club that they want congestion pricing to fund transit. Okay, so let me get this straight: We want to fund transit, something that costs more as more people use it, with revenues that decrease as more people switch to transit?
We don’t need this fight, we have plenty of battles already. We can’t punish people for going to work when they have yet no viable alternatives. I’d like to get some more light rail built instead of going on the defensive again.