Beginning of the very expensive changes coming to the Floating 520 Bridge, new lighted speed limit signs, Speed Limit 50, and what's with those dead tree tops?, Medina, Washington, USA
Photo by Flickr User Wonderlane

Congestion pricing has long been one of my pet subjects: with it we can simultaneous reduce wasted time for drivers and riders and raise much needed revenue for transportation projects. Win-win, really. The Evergreen Point Floating bridge is one of the most congested roads in the state, and also needs to be replaced soon. A new state study shows that congestion pricing works for this project:

Traffic next year would drop to 52,000 vehicles per day as drivers divert to Interstate 90, avoid trips or shift to transit, according to an “investment-grade” study by Wilbur Smith Associates, meant to assist in the future sale of construction bonds.

Vehicle trips wouldn’t rebound to the current levels of more than 100,000 a day until the year 2032, the study predicts.

While traffic would move faster, with fewer cars on the road, the state needs a certain level of traffic to generate enough tolls to help pay for a new six-lane bridge.

Despite a traffic drop-off, state Treasurer Jim McIntire is confident that tolling can support at least $1 billion in bonds for the $4.65 billion crossing, as the state Department of Transportation has assumed for years.

Tolls would exceed yearly debt payments by roughly $5 million, according to a new chart issued by McIntire’s office.

I don’t have much to add. Drawn out long enough, the tolls might support more than the $1 billion, and certainly if we were to toll I-90 as well we could raise double that. Of course no one wants to pay tolls, but no one wants to pay for anything. And certainly no one wants to sit in traffic. I wish congestion pricing were more popular.

44 Replies to “State Study Shows Congestion Pricing Works”

  1. If I-1125 passes, and the lege implements the ban on flexible toll rates after the state supreme court strikes down I-1125 for having way too many topics, then just set the toll rate to what is needed to stop most of the gridlock at peak times. If the freeways sit mostly empty of the rest of the day, so be it.

      1. Do you really think that’ll keep him from simply refiling two more initiatives next time? You know, I’ve never voted for any Eyeman initiative, but after reading the smug crap on this blog I am getting a lot warmer toward I-1125.

  2. I dont have a problem with congestion pricing and variable tolls, since most of the time i drive to seattle is during the off peak, and if i have to go up during the daylight hours, i take the bus. I mabye only drive up during the day a few times a year depending on the situation.

  3. Of course, the obvious question is why the bridge has to be 6 lanes if congestion pricing will reduce the need for that additional capacity. 4 lanes should be perfectly sufficient. Good congestion pricing eliminates the need for HOV lanes–since tolls are charged per vehicle, people automatically have an incentive to carpool or take transit. Unnecessary highway expansion often gets the support of progressives by throwing on HOV lanes–we should support tolling instead and spend money on maintenance instead of expansion.

    1. This is an “investment grade” study done to ensure there will be enough cash flow to pay back the bonds. It is extremely conservative (rightly so) and very likely overstates the amount of diversion quite a bit. The actual traffic volumes will probably end up higher than what this study predicts.

      It will be interesting to see what the actual patterns are a few months after tolling begins. I suspect there will end up being very little peak period diversion to other routes. Most of the peak period traffic reduction will likely be due to people rescheduling or eliminating their trips across the lake. And peak period congestion will still be bad, just not as bad as it would be without tolls.

      1. If the capacity really isn’t needed then in the future maybe it could be converted into an exclusive busway. In the larger context of this project I’m disturbed with the sustainable 520 groups attack of the transit elements of this project. If there is any part of this project that shouldn’t be attacked or compromised it is HOV lanes.

      2. The state is over $2 billion in the hole for SR 520 no matter what happens with I-1125, even with all the expected toll revenue. The city, county, state and feds have no more money. Gas taxes are a declining source of revenue. We can’t even afford to repave I-5; the era of highway megaprojects is ending. It is time for dreams and reality to get more closely aligned.

        For better or worse, SR 520 is going to be 4 lanes entering Seattle for many, many years, if not forever. The state has failed to produce a plan for SR 520 that we can afford.

        Even if we could afford that plan, it is hardly optimized for transit. The state’s plan closes the Montlake Flyer bus stops on the highway, introducing transit inefficiencies and requiring additional transit subsidies indefinitely, and makes an even bigger mess out of the Montlake interchange area through which all the UW-bound buses must travel.

        The proposed second drawbridge does not address the routine half-hour backups heading southbound on Montlake Blvd. from the Children’s Hospital / U Village corridor, so we will lack reliable transit service and reliable emergency vehicle access from those areas for years to come. What is needed is a queue bypass lane heading southbound approaching the drawbridge, not a second drawbridge.

        Even if we could afford HOV lanes entering Seattle, they are one Tim Eyman initiative away from being converted to general purpose lanes, in which case mobility for all modes, including transit, would suffer. Meanwhile, the construction impacts would make matters worse in the short term.

        The good news is, we have a way to eliminate congestion on the current SR 520 – by using congestion pricing – which would benefit transit immediately.

      3. I have to disagree about the HOV lanes. Adding HOV lanes, as opposed to turning existing lanes into HOV lanes, is still a huge increase in SOV capacity. Some people will carpool and switch to HOV, which opens up space in the other lanes that will then be filled by SOV drivers. I see this as a ploy by highway expansion advocates to get transit/environmental advocates to jump on board. It’s very similar to the Columbia River Crossing project. It’s mostly about highway expansion, but they include a light rail element as a way to get transit folks to support it. The end result is a modest increase in transit ridership and a large increase in SOV driving trips. It also makes me think of the 2007 roads/transit measure. Transit advocates sensibly rejected that in favor of waiting a year to get a transit-only bill. We should do the same with 520, and insist that if lanes are going to be added they should be transit-only. Otherwise we are compromising transit into oblivion.

      4. The good news is, we have a way to eliminate congestion on the current SR 520 – by using congestion pricing – which would benefit transit immediately.

        And that back-door tax will go straight to the ballot, where it will be crushed. With the help of my vote, by the way.

      5. How is paying for something you use a “back-door tax”? Do you consider buying groceries or clothing a back-door tax?

  4. Tolls generate 5 mil/yr over debt? That’s only $200 mil over 40 years.
    How does that generate a bil. towards the total price tag of 4.65?

    1. The study is saying that revenue from the tolls will support the annual payments on $1 billion of debt (issued with 30 year bonds I would assume) AND THEN provide an additional $5 million per year, over and above what is required for debt retirement.

    2. The key word is “over.” Revenues are first pledged to debt service (which yields $1 billion in proceeds for the project), and whatever the leftover is the excess amount ($5 million per year).

    3. This is also a fairly conservative estimate, since this is an “investment grade” study, which generally uses conservative estimates.

      1. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I consider an investment grade as the next stage past a detailed audit – it indicates that a consultant has performed enough analysis to justify an investment. In the building energy world, this is often done when a building is for sale or an owner is considering a major renovation. The owner can take an IGA and confidently rely on its results (enough to secure loans to enact the measures or more appropriately set the sales price, for example).

        My point is that an IGA is more detailed and precise than most audits. Not necessarily more conservative. “Conservative” implies estimates were used, and an IGA would have tighter estimates than a preliminary audit.

        Example: preliminary audit team shows a savings between 100k and 300k, and uses the 300k number to be conservative. They’re hired to go back and do an IGA, which shows a savings between 180k and 210k, and they use the 210k. The preliminary audit in this case was more conservative.

        (I don’t mean to nit-pick, I just thought I’d throw more details into the aether since I’ve done IGA’s myself)

      2. (oops, in my example, reverse the numbers. didn’t realize I had said “savings” which would make the low number the conservative one. the preliminary audit is still more conservative)

  5. I hope WSDOT is not going to discount tolls for certain groups. It isn’t for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, but once 520 is tolled, I fear there could be some political pressure to carve out discounts.

    In other states, I’m aware of toll discounts for residents of certain areas (Staten Islanders using the Verezano-Narrows Bridge, for example), hybrid cars (New York Thruway), carpools (many bridges), and, worst of all, “frequent travelers” (many bridges).

    Resident and frequent traveler discounts subsidize the people who benefit most from the bridge – this is completely illogical. Genuine carpoolers can already split the tolls, so a further discount is not required (depending on how a carpool discount is implemented, it could be a subsidy for families riding together). A hybrid discount encourages more driving and favors higher-income drivers who can afford to pay extra for hybrids.

    1. Hybrid discounting is a mess. I remember when I lived in California they gave carpool passes to drivers who bought hybrid cars early. Eventually the stopped the program because of a state-mandatted cap of 85,000 cars.

      The hybrids that could use the carpool lane resold for $4,000 more than hybrids that couldn’t:

      The point is, if you give people who drive hybrids a discount, you’ll encourage people to drive hybrids (of course) just to pay less tolls, which is backwards: congestion doesn’t care if you’re a carpool or a hybrid.

      1. Congestion does care a little bit about whether you’re a carpool, if you’ve taken another car or two off the road. But as was pointed out, the tolls are already an incentive to carpool.

      2. Sorry, congestion cares if you are driving more cars or not. But if you’re giving someone a ride that would otherwise take the bus, no difference. Or put another, it only cares about the number and type of cars, not the number of people.

      3. I’m with Andrew. On 520, I can’t tell you how many times my friends have asked me to ride with them, instead of taking the bus, just so they can use the HOV lanes.

  6. If I had a choice, I’d rather see a hike in the gas tax, which gives people an incentive to buy more fuel efficient cars. Congestion pricing takes away that incentive.

    1. As gas taxes increase and people switch to more efficient vehicles (or stop driving altogether), we lose our source of funding for these projects. As a result, the gas tax has to be supplemented with some form of user-based fee (a toll, VMT charge, etc).

      It’s unfortunate because the gas tax is so easy and efficient to collect, but it’s not a sustainable funding mechanism.

    2. Why are the two incompatible?

      A gas tax (or a carbon tax, in general) is a great way to capture the negative externality of pollution. The more you pollute, the more you pay. It’s simple and straightforward.

      But congestion is a very different beast than pollution. Most notably, it’s very local to time and place. A highway or bridge that’s a complete mess at 4pm on a Friday might be completely empty at 2pm on a Sunday.

      Because of its variability, congestion pricing provides a disincentive to use the roadway when it’s most busy, and a (comparative) incentive to use it when traffic is lighter. That results in less congestion (and shorter travel times) for everyone.

      Why can’t we have both?

      1. Please, oh please, implement congestion tolling. Come on, kids, do it. Eyeman will shoot you down so fast it’ll make your heads spin.

      2. Aleks’ points are right on. Congestion and pollution are costing all of us a great deal. Sooner or later, the market-based solution of congestion pricing in order to improve travel times and fuel efficiency, while simultaneously raising revenue — will be triumphant. All of those outcomes are desired. It is ultimately fair to charge for the externalities that your trip will add. The revenue raised could be spent on a combination of roadway maintenance and transit, be it capital or operational expenses. All of our highways would be free-flowing at all hours, so buses and freight would not be delayed as they are today. This seems like a pretty good scenario to me.

        P.S. Just thought I would mention, I am convinced ST has been tunneling under my neighbor’s yard in the last day, up by Montlake Elementary School. The tunnel is deep here, but last night and tonight I thought I heard something rumble in the distance, and I put my ear to the basement floor, and faintly heard a combination of a steady whirr and crunching, with the occasional scrape or rumble. It was off for a bit, and then back again.

    1. I agree. The commuting lifestyle, even when using public transit, IS the problem. That’s why I moved to within walking distance of work. I wanted to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Multi-billion dollar light rail systems, or even roads and freeway systems, do not have to be built for me.

      I am the epitome of proper, green living. I am an example to others.

      1. I am the epitome of proper, green living. I am an example to others.

        If you lived anywhere but in the Seattle area, I’d think you were joking.

    2. Tolls and congestion pricing does give people an economic incentive to live closer to where they work and shop. That’s not necessarily “best” if you are thinking about allocating workers. Ie someone who is a nurse lives with someone who is an Aerospace Engineer. Is it better that the aerospace company locate next to a health facility? Or should one of them switch careers so that they can work closer to home?

      Being able to work where one is “the best at” is part of what makes cities more wealthy.

    3. Congestion pricing is one of the best ways to encourage people to live near where they work. It’s not as if you put in congestion pricing and the people just stay home…

    4. In real life of course, folks change jobs and can’t at easily move locations, two worker households don’t always have jobs near each other etc.

      1. True, but we’re talking about influencing factors. You’re more likely to look for a job where it’s close and convenient. As is your spouse. Make a commute less convenient or more expensive, and the odds just went up that you’ll either switch jobs or move. Any time you change odds on a large group of people, behaviors change accordingly. Individually, making it 10% more likely you’ll move probably does nothing – you will likely stay put. But extend this to a large group and 10% of the people actually moves.

      2. Of course, even the “two worker” household is going the way of the nuclear family as marriage rates plummet and more women become single mothers.

        Singles stay with parents until the beginning of middle age now.

        Couples keep their own apartments, expecting that relationships will always be temporal.

        Renting is replacing owning.

        All these things result in a highly fluid, mobile workforce…able to shift quarters for a better or needed opportunity.

      3. Singles stay with parents until the beginning of middle age now.

        Couples keep their own apartments, expecting that relationships will always be temporal.

        Renting is replacing owning.

        And they’re all moving to Kent!

    5. As Knute Berger pointed in a column awhile back, if we just demolished the 520 bridge you can bet a lot more Redmond and Bellevue workers would decide to move closer to work…

      1. If by “move closer to work”, you mean “quit my job and apply to Amazon/Google”, or maybe “apply for a job in San Francisco and move there”, then yeah, definitely!

        I fail to see how actively restricting mobility is the correct way to achieve anything other than economic stagnation.

    6. Of course it’s best to live near where you work. But if one spouse has a job in Bellevue and the other has a job in Kent, it doesn’t work. Are they supposed to split up because they can’t find jobs in the same city? Or what if Boeing suddenly transfers them from Renton to Lynnwood? And they may also have relatives in Tacoma they’d like to see once a week.

      1. See my response to [benleis]. In each case you cite, some fraction of people will make better choices if the incentives act in the right direction.

        I have a feeling that most people actually can live near where they work – they just feel they can’t afford to (“drive until you qualify”). Of course in theory they can, but working out numbers in this way goes against human nature. Seeing that charge over your head on the bridge every day, however, might convince some people to adjust their lives.

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