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.

28 Replies to “Congestion Pricing Anytime Soon is a Bad Idea”

  1. Great post!

    You allude to it in the article, but I’ll state it more clearly: congestion pricing is a very regressive tax (or fee, whatever). Someone who lives in a Multi-million dollar mansion in Medina and drives a Brand new BMW over 520 will pay the same toll as someone who lives in an apartment in Redmond driving a 1998 Toyota.

    This will burden poor and working class people even more. These are people who should be natural allies of transit and we shouldn’t force them into the other camp.

    If we want to get more people on transit we shouldn’t focus on punishing people for driving when they have little other choice (commuting on the Eastside is a pain).

    We should be focused on providing incentives like increased frequency and quality of bus service and forcing employers to provide subsidized transit passes. Politicians and transit agencies need to make it appealing and simple to take transit (more wifi on buses, keeping the buses clean,making maps that are easier to understand to transit newbies, etc. In the future we of course need high capacity transit (light rail, commuter rail) where appropriate

  2. Yes, the toll will be viewed as a tax. No, there currently aren’t any viable transit options for many of the poeple potentially affected by the tolls.

    But, you forgot one important piece of the puzzle:

    The congestion pricing can effectively reduce traffic congestion. It does this via market forces. I won’t explain why or how (others have already done a better job of explaining that than I possibly could).

    the person commuting from Renton to the University is already effectively paying a large price. Instead of measuring the price in dollars, it’s measured in time wasted stuck in traffic. Unlike a toll, this wasted time is very difficult to predict and plan for, due to the semi-random nature of traffic jams.

    When viewed this way, a congestion toll doesn’t add a new cost. It takes one existing cost (time stuck in traffic) and transfers it to another cost (tolls collected). Anti-tax crusaders can curse all they want, but a lot of poeple (me included) would be happy to pay a fee to have an extra half hour at home each night.

    That’s the theory at least. I hope it works out this way.

  3. I have to disagree. Making public transit free does two things that can damage ridership:

    1) It increases the number of disruptive riders dramatically, which drives off normal users. We don’t have good homeless services, so they’d largely stay on transit all day.

    2) People use price to judge value. When something is offered for free, we’re often turned off by it because we perceive it as valueless.

    These factors combine to result in increased vandalism as well.

    A better solution is to offer riders free or very cheap passes through their workplaces or schools. We do that already, and we do also offer homeless free bus tickets, but because they have a limited number, they use them when they need them rather than all the time.

    What it boils down to is – if you’re going to work, you can often find a subsidy to make transit free for you. Removal of the farebox is a bad idea, but subsidizing transit in some way is a good idea.

  4. Hey, that last one was a response to fpeditors.

    Chris, you’re right, it is regressive – more so than a sales tax.

    anonymous, congestion pricing doesn’t decrease congestion when there are no good alternatives to driving. The only way it could do so would be to stop people from taking trips at all. This reduces economic prosperity, because people start taking jobs closer to home for lower pay. That can also lead to increased sprawl.

    Also, when you say it’s a transfer of costs, you need to take into account that it’s not equivalent – administrative overhead on the Narrows bridge is taking something near 30% of the revenue. That’s a pretty inefficient way to move money around!

    That “lot of people” who would be happy to pay for reduced congestion won’t be very happy if congestion won’t reduce. You will *create new anti-tax crusaders* with such a project.

  5. I’ve always thought the politician who implements congestion pricing would immediately get voted out next time in favor of someone whose sole agenda would be removing congestion pricing.

    So it’s not just that we’d have another initiative guy, we’d have an initiative guy in office.

  6. Daimajin, you’re probably right. You’d see a county executive from somewhere get axed quickly.

  7. “congestion pricing doesn’t decrease congestion when there are no good alternatives to driving.”

    It’s yet to be seen if congestion pricing will actually decrease traffic in the area, but I’m much more optimistic than you.

    The ‘Renton to University’ scenario outlined in this post is a worst case example. There are some poeple who absolutely have to drive for whatever reason. There are also a lot of poeple who can take the bus, but simply don’t. There are lot’s of drivers who could carpool, but choose not to. There are a lot of non-essential trips that take place at rush hour which could be scheduled at other times. Biking is also an option. These options won’t work for everyone, but when the alternative is a toll, they begin to look a lot more appealing. The less poeple driving, the better congestion is going to get.

    drivers are much more flexible than you portray. a case in point would be the I-90 lane closures last year: People who had to drive at rush hour did, but enough poeple found other modes of transportation that the predicted nightmare traffic never materialized.

    In summary, I’m not convinced that most drivers in this area have no alternative to driving.

  8. I wonder if there is the potential for some tinkering in how the toll is charged. Some formula that takes into account the vehicle’s MPG and value. Set the baseline at a $18,000 car getting 25 MPG, each additional reduction/increase in MPG would raise/lower your toll by $0.15 and each additional $1,000 car value would raise/lower your toll by $0.10, or something like that.

    Buses (public and private), delivery vehicles, 18-wheelers etc would have a separate fare chart. This would be designed for consumer driven autos.

    The idea is to kindof model based on european traffic tickets where the fine is based off the driver’s income, not something that is fixed.

  9. Unfortunately, we do give the homeless unlimited passes on a regular basis. Also, many do not seem to care if they pay because too many bus drivers do not want confrontation. As a daily transit user, I see this as a large negative, and would never want “free service for all” in our current environment.

    Personally, I think that the ultimate solution to all of this is to charge by the mile. They already are looking at this for insurance, and it would be an excellent solution for motor vehicle taxes as well. (However, as observed, it would probably be a bad idea to fund transit with this, as miles driven would fall as transit use would rise.) Basically, you could charge more per mile for cars that pollute more. I really could care less how expensive your car is – just how much it pollutes.

    In fact, they kind of do this in Hong Kong – they charge by engine size. (They also have tolls on bridges, but an excellent public transit system.)

  10. This post has made me think of the difference between roads and rails. We have government pay a huge amount of money to build and maintain roads, and all we have to pay for is fuel and vehicles (which still adds up to quite a lot).

    When light rail comes along, perhaps we should charge fares based on the fuel used, maintanance (of the trains, not the tracks), and for the eventual replacement of vehicles. This should result in a very low fare.

    Charging anything more than that would be imposing the same regressive taxation claimed in the tolling argument.

  11. Matt I like the argument, but perhaps just a percentage should go into upkeep of the rails. There is the per gallon taxes that go into road funds.

    Ryan, the point of putting a piece in for how expensive your car is to make the tax more progressive and less regressive. Unfortunately some of the most fuel efficient technologies are some of the most expensive.

  12. I agree nick. But if you really want to make the playing field even, consider that gasoline is massively subsidised if you consider the cost of keeping oil flowing to our country.

  13. The homeless problem really is separate of the transit availability problem. The solution is to ship them all to Tacoma in the dead of night.

    Renton to UW? Why not take the 101 from Renton P&R to downtown, then get on a 70?

    I do realize that rail looks, smells, and tastes better than busses, but the initial framework of carrying people about makes more sense with a bus because of its innate flexibility. If one route isn’t very successful it can easily be changed, without pulling up or putting down any track.

    If busses are unattractive because they are dirty and filled with people who don’t understand personal hygiene, .. well .. at that point the bus is no longer the problem, the riders are. Drop the free passes to the homeless (they already ride free in the downtown area like the rest of us do) and start enforcing fares with more transit police on random routes.

  14. Absolutely astonished. So instead of pricing road users, thus surpressing spurious demand at peak periods and improving speed and reliability of bus transit, you would place a tax on the sales tax on goods and services (consumed by poor transit users as well as wealthy drivers) to build a light rail system, that may accommodate many trips in particular corridors yet in the end serves only a fraction of travel demand in the region? Tell me where to catch the light rail in Renton? Oh yea, I have to take a bus that is no better off because it has failed to meet the cool test.
    Poor people already are taking the bus, two, three transfers in order to get to work. Maybe you haven’t noticed gas prices. Where implemented, dynamic tolling and congestion pricing can enable better transit. In the case of London, the Underground has no capacity to carry more people. The cordon tolling approach has funded more bus service and made surface faster and more reliable.

    What this sounds like is a plea to stop tolling because it might work and call into question a omni-present rail system with its extravagant expenditures. I believe rail is critical to our future, but not at the sake of leaving bus riders stuck in traffic and the poor still taking three buses to get to work (tell me when rail is going to serve the Federal Way to Kirkland connection, or Monroe to SODO).
    Ridiculous. I’m sorry. I just had to speak my mind.

  15. If your 101 is late, you miss your 70.

    Flexibility is a *bad thing* in transportation. It takes away a perception of reliability, which drives down ridership. Where we see buses replaced with rail, ridership *always* increases even with equivalent service.

    People see tracks and where they go a lot more easily than they remember a bus number. Developers take advantage of rails bringing them customers (half the point of transportation). Commuters change where they live to live near rail. A bus can easily “just go away” – rail does not, so it can be better relied upon.

    This flexibility argument is bogus. “Flexibility” is just a code word for “allows sprawl to continue while giving lip service to transit”.

  16. If your 70/71/72/73 is late, grab the next one in 7 minutes. If you’re worried about being late, take an earlier bus so that if your 101 is late you will still get there on time with a later 7X.

    Yeah, people are generally too lazy to plan ahead like above, but maybe that is another problem that needs to be addressed before we lay tracks down for new rail which may or may not serve the interests of transit riders.

  17. Chris, when a large group of people are “too lazy” to do something, it becomes clear there’s an actual reason.

    The 101/70, as I addressed in the post, would take as long or longer than driving. That’s already a long commute, and it’s representative of the types of commutes we have in the region. Also, the 70 is *not* an express bus. If you mean the 71, 72 or 73, they do come quite often, but not every 7 minutes. Having to take the earlier 101 adds 15-20 minutes to an already longer commute.

    And then, where does the 101 go? To a small part of Renton. The vast majority of people in Renton would have to take another bus just to get to the 101.

    Congestion pricing isn’t necessary to get those people who *can* take the bus to do it – gas prices will do that for us.

    I love these arguments about “people should take the bus” because they’re so ridiculous. People *don’t* take the bus. It’s as simple as that. Understanding why is our job, not telling them that they “should”, because they don’t care whether we think they should or not!

  18. Enlightening Ben. And it wasn’t just me who suspected Metro of planting mannequins on all those buses. You’re right, people don’t ride people.

  19. What ben is saying is that the people who aren’t already taking the bus don’t take the bus.

    The rest of us obviously do.

    Now I better get out of here before I miss mine!

  20. Yeah, I’m sorry if I was unclear. I meant in comparison to driving, very few people choose to ride the bus.

  21. Nick,

    I totally understand that fuel efficient technologies can be expensive. (EG: recent markups on the Prius) However, there are lots of older, smaller cars that are great on fuel (and probably emissions) but cost very little. My prime example is the 3-cyl Geo Metro because I drove one for a while and loved it, but there are many others…

    Despite all of this, in the end I am not actually trying to figure out a way make the tax “progressive.” If the wealthy want to save the environment and “ride in style” – more power to them. All it does is make people (such as the upper-middle class) want to do so as well. As for people like myself who make relatively little, we would demand more low-pollution cars… and the environment wins.

  22. By itself, congestion pricing is regressive, but being forced to purchase, maintain, store and insure a vehicle just for the privilege of fueling and driving it is far more regressive. Moreover, congestion pricing is, to varying degrees, avoidable as compared to the sales tax, which is hardly avoidable at all. But, arguments over relative regressivity are complicated.

    If we get ourselves organized and demand a well designed congestion pricing system, not everyone will pay the same use fee. Rebates can be tied to existing mechanisms like the electronic benefit transfer system through which various types of state and federal assistance to low-income families are already provided. Read about this sorta thing here

    Studies have shown that low and high income families perceive opportunities afforded by predictable travel times. Check out these recent surveys of public perception or

    Congestion pricing will only apply downward pressure on driving demand, even when we fail to provide effective corridor alternatives like transit and van pools.
    We already know that 75% of trips are not for commuting, that can be combined, shifted to a different time of day or avoided all together. In general, we fail to appreciate how little reduction in volume is required to achieve free flowing conditions, as this study suggests

    Come to Sierra Club’s tolling forum on Monday the 24th at REI and throw some arrows at a few congestion pricing experts. See what bleeds.

  23. Morgan, when you say 75% of trips are not for commuting, I’m pretty sure you’re not talking about “trips in congested corridors” – because nearly 100% of trips in congested corridors at congested times *are* for commuting.

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