Northbound roadway deck in the SR 99 tunnel

The new SR-99 tunnel has a problem.

No, Bertha isn’t stuck again.  This time, problem is financial: setting the toll rates.

The initial results of an investment-grade analysis of tolling options, performed by a consultant for WSDOT, show that setting a price point for the new tunnel continues to be as tricky a proposition as it was for other highways in the region, where new tolls spurred howls of protests from angry drivers and led to worsened traffic on competing routes.

Toll rates must find the sweet spot between two competing ideals. They must be high enough to raise the $200 million pledged to construction costs of the $3.2 billion tunnel and viaduct replacement. But they must be low enough that drivers will pay them, rather than veer off onto Interstate 5 or downtown surface streets, both of which are already at or near capacity.

For any price above $0, their will be some diversion to surface streets.  The only real solution is to toll the surface streets.   All of them.

Congestion pricing – a fee to enter the downtown core – has worked successfully in London, Singapore, and Stockholm.  Drivers are charged via a similar tolling system to the one on the SR 520 bridge.   Congestion pricing allows buses to move faster and, crucially, provides additional revenue for transit service.  Chad Newton wrote a great guest post a couple years back on how it could work.

Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien put $200,000 into this year’s budget to study congestion pricing in Seattle.  The Deputy Mayor, Shefali Ranganathan, has spoken positively of the idea.

Some will argue that congestion pricing is regressive.  It’s true that it doesn’t scale with income, but it’s important to keep in mind that most of the poorest people arriving downtown during the workday come by transit.  Parking costs north of $300/month in downtown garages.

Seattle, with its hourglass shape and water boundaries, is a natural fit for congestion pricing.  The city has tried and failed for 15 years to significantly reduce its carbon emissions.  The best way to get there is to significantly reduce car traffic.  Congestion pricing will help with that goal.

82 Replies to “To Avoid SR-99 Diversions, Toll All the Roads”

  1. The revenue could be used to decrease the sales tax, addressing the regressivity issue. This would also likely help with businesses’ support.

    1. Regressivity of tolling can be tackled through a low-income GoodToGo Pass, which charges tolls at 33% or 50% of the standard price.

      It is an issue. The theory of decongestion pricing is that people value their time for particular trips differently; some trips are worth $5, some could be shifted to lower cost times, or rerouted to longer but free routes. The theory is fair if everyone has equal access to money. In our society, however, $5 would be a major barrier to some drivers and a cost not even worth noticing for others. In that case, the rich keep on driving tolls roads as much as before the toll, and the poor avoid it altogether. The cost for reducing auto demand is borne primarily by lower income people.

      Graduated toll rates based on income can reduce this effect.

  2. In principle, congestion pricing downtown is a good idea, although the amount of the toll should very with the time of day and day of week. Another interesting question is how Uber and Lyft vehicles pay. Per trip or per day? If per trip, does UberPool/LyftLine could as a separate trip each time the same vehicle picks up another passenger? What about somebody taking UberPool from SeaTac to Northgate, whose vehicle is traveling through downtown streets only to pick up or drop off another passenger?

    Also, should a downtown congestion fee apply to shared-ride services, for example, BoltBus, hotel courtesy shuttles, Amazon shuttles, Microsoft Connector?

    1. My thoughts on answers to some of the above questions:

      1) With very few exceptions, every vehicle that drives downtown should pay. This would include Uber, BoltBus and Amazon shuttles, but it would exclude vehicles owned by government agencies, such as police cars, fire trucks, garbage trucks, and mail delivery vans.

      2) The ideal fee would be based on the number of minutes driving on downtown streets, and be roughly comparable with the cost of parking at a parking meter for the same amount of time. So, no incentive to circle around the block, just to avoid paying for parking. This factor will become very important as vehicles become autonomous, and circling around the block no longer requires a human to be in the car.

      3) Uber/Lyft/Car2Go vehicles would be charged the same amount as any other car, and it would be up to the respective companies to figure out how to pass the charges onto the customers. Ideally, the congestion fees for downtown driving would apply only to passengers getting picked up or dropped off downtown, and passengers who aren’t traveling downtown, (or shared-ride passengers forced to travel downtown just to pick up/drop off other passengers) would not pay. Those that order a pick-up downtown and cancel would be charged for any congestion fee the driver already racked up, prior to the cancellation.

      In short, taking an Uber/Lyft to/from downtown during peak hours would get a lot more expensive, but those using the services during the off hours or other parts of the city would see little to no impact.

    2. I think the private commuter and rideshare vehicles should pay the congestion charge but no more than an SOV even if they do more driving. Anyone who is carless is more likely to walk and use transit and be less of a cause of congestion than SOVs. So it’s not important to meter the charge. Just make it a daily use charge.

    3. Uber/Lyft are private cars, and shouldn’t be afforded any additional privileges than any other car on the road

  3. Interstate 5 or downtown surface streets, both of which are already at or near capacity.

    Could be that once implemented we find the same effect as the I-405 HOT lanes. That is, the revenue greatly exceeds the studies from the so called experts.

    Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien put $200,000 into this year’s budget to study congestion pricing in Seattle.

    Why not just put the money toward implementing it. That’s the only way to really know how it’s going to work. If contracted out, which I assume the City would have to do, the cost/risk can be shared with the contractor. Structure the deal such that certain revenue and traffic flow metrics must be met before the contractor gets paid. People will squeal like a stuck pig but, like the 405 HOT lanes, vote with their $$$.

    1. I don’t think it is obvious to implement. For example, how do you define “downtown”? Just take the northern border. South of Denny is a good line, but that means dozens of streets have to have tolls. Do you just toll the major freeways? That would be a lot simpler, and make more sense, but that is exactly what people are worried about. Someone will avoid SR 99, and avoid I-5, and simply drive along the waterfront, or on one of the numbered avenues (1st, 2nd, etc.). Maybe the thing to do is pick a pinch point, and toll all the streets there. For example, toll all the streets between the waterfront and the freeway at Madison. Also toll all the ramps connecting to I-5 downtown. The point is, it is complicated, and you just can’t “implement it” the way you would with a freeway.

      1. With license plate and transponder tolling now commonplace, I can’t imagine that the equipment is all that expensive, and likely has pretty low operating costs. I think you can define a perimeter and install equipment along all the ingress routes. If you want to be sure to capture vehicles that are garaged overnight, you could also capture egress or some common transit points.

        But I don’t think it would be difficult or expensive to have a comprehensive tolling system that would capture, for example, SLU to Pioneer Square, everything west of I-5.

      2. @Carl — I suppose, but you are still talking about dozens of devices, and dozens of signs. You still have to figure out where to put them. I’m sorry, but nothing about this is obvious, unlike tolling freeways.

      3. It may not be obvious, but other cities have implemented it successfully, so there is no reason it can’t be done here. And we have built experience with camera/transponder tolling on the 520 bridge, 405 HOT project, and 167 HOT project – so the technology seems to work reliably enough, and should bring declining costs with experience and economies of scale.

      4. Boundary north bridges that cross the ship canal
        Boundary south would be i90 there are a limited number o places we’re you can cross then cut across on Edgar Martinez drive to the waterfront

    2. It will be interesting to see whether the “no traffic” benefit leads to unexpectedly high usage, as on 405;. We’ve seen two opposite effects: movement away from 520, and movement toward the 405 HOT lanes. Perhaps the difference is that one is a fifteen-mile corridor (long benefit) and one is a bridge (short benefit). If so, then 99 would perform more like a bridge. Plus the intrinsic fact that 99 is useful for only a limited number of origin/destination pairs.

      1. Is diversion due to 520 tolls still an issue? I was under the impression that after an initial “getting to know you” period most people figured it just wasn’t worth the extra time to drive the north end or take I-90 simply to avoid tolls. The NW isn’t used to toll roads the way people back east are so there’s still a tendency to cry foul but those same people still shell out the $3-10 to save 20-40 minutes.

        Regarding the “gas guzzler” paying the same as a Prius we could adopt the European model that bans cars older than a certain cut off year from even entering DT. Good luck with that one! A crack down on the independent short haul truckers that ferry cargo away from the docks would be the best place to address emissions. For the most part that would simply mean enforcing existing laws regarding highway safety.

      2. The Evergreen Point bridge used to carry like 110,000 vehicles per day before tolling. I think today the number is more like 60,000-65,000 (I haven’t seen a number for a while, so it could have increased.)

        While there has been some diversion to other routes, I think other trips have simply disappeared. Kind of the opposite of induced demand that is created when new free capacity is added. All of a sudden people stopped making optional (or low value) trips when they have to pay.

      3. The latest report I could find from WSDOT claims “On average 77,000 tolled vehicles per weekday crossed the SR 520 Bridge in FY 2016, up from 74,000 per weekday in FY 2015.” From the graphs it appears the number for 2017 will come in right around 80,000.

        WSDOT “Facts” page says “(103,000 pre-tolling) “. Part of their shtick for the new sinking bridge was:

        A 15 to 17 percent increase in the total number of people SR 520 carries during the morning and evening commutes as more people use buses and carpools. This increase in person trips occurs with only a 5 percent to 10 percent increase in vehicles on the highway.

        Acedotally I find this easy to believe as I was using the 255 for commuting when tolling began and it went from packed to people hanging out the windows over an extended commute time period. I don’t think too many trips were eliminated during peak times because nobody in their right mind was driving across the bridge if they didn’t really need to in the bad old days. Besides being stuck in traffic that bridge was seriously unsafe.

  4. I have a feeling that the tolls won’t make a difference at all. It will be like 520, if the bridge works for you (and is better than the alternative) you’ll just pay the toll. For people who basically can flip a coin, they might go the other way, but that is a small minority. That has a tendency to balance itself out. If a lot of people migrate to I-90, then 520 traffic is lighter, and more people people move back to paying the toll to avoid traffic. People will pay a lot to avoid traffic and save time. For a lot of people, using SR 99 will do just that.

    They have more to worry about from people who can’t use the viaduct anymore. If I’m in Ballard, and want to drive to West Seattle, I take the viaduct and I’m there in less than 20 minutes. With the lack of ramps at Western, I have a couple choices. I can work my way over to Fremont and take the Aurora bridge, or I can just hug the waterfront. The latter seems better. So that means a lot of people driving the surface streets not because it is cheaper, but because getting to the tunnel is much harder. Ballard, Magnolia or west Queen Anne to West Seattle, SeaTac or any southwest Seattle destination is going to be one of those coin flips. You can work yourself over to SR 99, or just stay by the waterfront. No amount of tolling will change the dynamic.

    1. I think the point of tolls is that some people will choose not to drive.

      In the particular case you mention of Ballard->West Seattle I imagine you (and I) would probably still drive because I don’t think it’s easy to do otherwise (though hopefully that will change by 2035).

      The idea would be that you _should_ experience less traffic and congestion on your route, because people who are doing Roosevelt->Downtown or Green Lake -> SoDo might opt for using light-rail or rapidride to avoid the tolls.

      And I’m curious why you think tolling on the 520 is not working. From my qualitative experience it’s one of the least congested roads in the Puget Sound. Admittedly I don’t use it daily, but when I do it seems a breeze compared to most roads around here.

      1. The tolls make the highway relatively empty during the off-peak hours, but during rush hour, it’s just as congested as anything else in the area.

      2. @asdf2,

        Actually, I think SR-520 is less congested than other routes at rush hour, but if it truly is just as contested then the toll should be increased. That is the beauty of Dynamic Tolling for Congestion Relief -the toll can be increased until the desired effect is achieved.

      3. “And I’m curious why you think tolling on the 520 is not working. From my qualitative experience it’s one of the least congested roads in the Puget Sound.”

        That is something new. Before the toll it was the most-packed road in the Eastside. Every day had a long backup to the bridge morning and afternoon and often midday, and the buses were stuck in it. With the tolls and new bridge that evaporated and it was smooth sailing. Since then it has crept back somewhat, but remember that the population has increased too, so even if the absolute number of people on the bridge is up, individuals are still using 520 less. And I heard recently that diversion to I-90 is still raging.

        There is more bus service on 520 peak hours, so that may explain where some of the people have gone.

      4. >> And I’m curious why you think tolling on the 520 is not working. From my qualitative experience it’s one of the least congested roads in the Puget Sound.

        Oh, I agree. It is much better since they put in the tolls. So I guess fewer people are using it. But they are still using it. I still won’t head westbound at 5:00 PM — that is a disaster. The big lesson is that people might go a little out of their way if it doesn’t cost them much time, but when traffic is heavy, they will choose the fastest route, even if it is a bit more expensive.

        This tunnel is no different. This tunnel will not send thousands of people onto the surface streets, unless the surface streets are fast. It just doesn’t work that way. Taxing the surface streets (or I-5) is a reasonable thing to do, but the new tunnel has nothing to do with that. I applaud folks here for taking the next logical step in this argument, but I think the premise is flawed. If the tunnel doesn’t get that many drivers, it is because it doesn’t have all the ramps, not because they charge a few pennies to use it.

      5. The tunnel was justified as being necessary to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct capacity when that was replaced. It was obviously something of a sleight of hand since the ramps at Western Ave (both directions) and Seneca/Columbia (one way) were not replaced at all, so that traffic has to divert, and there likely wasn’t that much through traffic.

        I suspect that the 520 diversion is greater off-peak when other routes aren’t congested. But even some peak traffic has disappeared and the backups are certainly less than they used to be

      6. There were three proposals which would allow replacement of the viaduct within a reasonable time frame:

        1) Transit intensive, with no through highway
        2) Replace the viaduct with another one on the site
        3) Dig a tunnel

        The City of Seattle didn’t want #2 because it would continue to wall downtown off from the waterfront. The State didn’t want #1 because SR99 is an important regional connector. So that left #3. While it’s certainly possible to have made a “Y” in the tunnel in order to connect to the Elliott/Western couplet, it wouldn’t have been easy or cheap. And, quite frankly, the new six-lane Alaskan Way south of the Columbia Path will be only a couple of minutes slower than the S ramps.

        Yes, Alaskan Way north of Columbia will have a LOT of trucks for a four lane road. But industry in Ballard is on the wane already because of limited access, and the land along the waterfront is too valuable for housing for non critical industry to remain there long.

        I expect that the DBT will be a great success no matter what the toll.

      7. “there likely wasn’t that much through traffic”

        In that case most of the cars would be entering and exiting at the Columbia and Denny entrances, but in fact only a minority of cars did, did and most remained in the other lanes. The Elliott/Western ramps were more for the 15th Ave W expressway and not very convenient for the downtown core. Still that’s the main chunk of cars that will shift to the tunnel, as the others (Columbia and Denny) have to exit downtown anyway because that is their destination.

  5. If we close Downtown to cars, that’ll definitely settle things about tolls. But tactically rather than philosophically: Will removing cars let us promise people enough transit that they can accomplish whatever purpose brings them there?

    Mark Dublin

    1. I assume all this money will be used for transit, building an excellent subway connecting Ballard, West Seattle, Belltown and First Hill with downtown. By 2023.

      1. One of the benefits of using tolls to fund transit is that as demand grows during economic upswings, you can toll more to fund increased transit as needed.

        However, I wonder how a transit operating fund that operates like a university endowment might look? Invest the proceeds from the tolls into a fund, and use the income to fund transit service, rather than relying on current taxes. Are there government agencies that currently do this?

      2. Not that I know of. The main problem is that you need to invest a hundred times the expected income to make a meaningful amount of money (and nowadays even higher in our current low-return economy). If you’re having trouble raising taxes for $X, how will you raise $X x 100? And if you do it over a long time, you won’t get income for a long time. And people may grumble about paying now for a benefit thirty thirty years in the future when they need transit now. But if Bezos and Allen and the other rich people in SLU were to donate to start a fund…

      3. I think we learned from the last recession why tying transit funding to the rise and fall of the stock market is such a bad idea…

      4. Singapore funds their transit like you described

        The proposal is to fix congestion, not to fix transit. I have trouble supporting that makes driving more painful instead of making transit more appealing.

      5. Golden Gate Transit in the Bay Area sort of works like this. A single special purpose district owns the Golden Gate Bridge, a ferry system and a bus system. They’re not allowed to levy taxes but do use toll revenue from the bridge to subsidize inter-county bus and ferry service between Sonoma, Marin and San Francisco counties.

  6. If the goal is to deal with the diversion issue while helping place a reasonable floor on tunnel tolls, then you don’t need to toll all of the downtown core. All you need to do is to toll a mid-block screen line that extends from the waterfront to somewhere a few blocks (TBD) on the far side of I-5.

    Such a tolling screen line would discourage diversion while still allowing reasonable access to downtown. Some people would still need to cross the sreen line to get to the other side of downtown, but some wouldn’t, and all would have additional options that wouldn’t exist with a fully tolled DT core. This helps diffuse the political issues surrounding a fully tolled core.

    Additionally tolling just a screen line is cheaper to implement. All you need to do is install tolling hardware on a single line and not on the full perimeter. Thus the hardware and maintenance cost is roughly 1/3 of the cost of tolling the whole perimeter. Overhead costs would still be roughly the same.

    Tolling a screen line on city streets is what Seattle can do to deal with toll diversion. However, at some point the state really need to step up and put tolls on both I-5 at DT Seattle and on I-90 on the floating bridge.

    But it is encouraging to see the growing acceptance of tolling in managing congestion.

      1. It can’t happen too soon.

        Tolling the I-90 floating bridge would restore the balance to the cross-Lake commute, and would reduce congestion on I-5 in DT Seattle and I-405 in DT Bellevue. And tolling I-5 in DT Seattle will be necessary anyhow when the DBT tolls start.

        But, yes, tolling is a very powerful congestion management toll. We need to use more of it.

  7. I’m a photographer with a studio downtown and I frequently need to lug 150 lbs of gear around. I use transit frequently, but I can’t use it when I’m carrying that much gear, so a car is necessary for my job from time to time. Transit works for most scenarios but not all, especially for vendors and commercial work. I’d gladly pay a congestion fee so I can arrive to my client on time.

    1. Exactly. I don’t think people get that. For a lot of businesses, the fees are a bargain. Let’s say I make beer in Georgetown, and have to deliver it to a bar in Fremont. Do you think I’m worried about paying a couple bucks to go through the tunnel? Of course not! I’m thrilled if I can do this quickly, turn around, and make another delivery.

      Likewise for people who find themselves with an awkward commute. Paying a bit extra for a toll versus paying to pick up your kid at daycare even a few minutes late is an easy choice to make (pay the toll). That’s why the I-405 tolls max out. So often, for so many people, it is cheaper to just pay for the toll.

  8. I’d suggest we start congestion pricing for commercial vehicles at peak travel time. Once the bugs are worked out and people get used to it, it can be expanded to more vehicles at more times of day when needed.

  9. For starters lets get more red bus lanes implemented and automatic photo enforcement of bus lanes AND intersection blocking. No one is going to take the bus when its 30 minutes delayed due to congestion (and of course with an unpredictable and ever changing arrival time), they’ll just drive solo and add to the congestion.

    1. Definitely this. Congestion pricing is a non-starter politically but bus lanes are battle we actually have a chance of winning.

    2. I am afraid you are right. Although a nice side effect from dynamic tolling is that we won’t need any dedicated bus lines any more–if traffic flows well enough because of tolls, there is little need to separate buses from cars. This will actually free quite a bit of space–all these bus lines that are not used when there are no buses. It is also infeasible to make bus lanes on many narrow streets, or on streets with very infrequent bus service.

      But unfortunately politics and economics go in their distinct and different ways…

  10. I can understand the value and effects of tolling and its subset of congestion pricing. I have an issue with it for a few reasons.

    1. It hits every car (and not just gas guzzlers) at the same rate. That includes EVs and hybrids, and other less carbon-emitting strategies. Even the current car tab methods are more fair.

    2. When applied to an area, we haven’t incorporated this into our planning and design. Tolling diverts traffic to other streets. We’ve just eliminated multiple north-south lanes throughout Seattle on the theory that they had too much capacity and needed a “diet”. Now we would put more into them?

    3. Because of the design of Seattle, there aren’t only Downtown-bound trips in Downtown Seattle. If the objective is to get more people out of their cars for Downtown Seattle, it doesn’t really address this other major segment of the travel market. The objective of congestion pricing should govern if and how it’s done.

    4. Downtown parking is also so expensive that tolling won’t add much to the demand curve as we’ve already shifted most of these trips already.

    5. The precise places to do it aren’t in Downtown. The natural travel gateways aren’t in the middle of Downtown. We have grown our Downtown footprint to go from the stadiums to north of Mercer Street and from 12th Ave E to Elliott so the lines are challenging to draw.

    6. Even regional trips cannot easily avoid Downtown because any other freeway routes are also excessively congested. If 405 and 167 had free-flow conditions, pricing people away from Downtown Seattle would be good — but they don’t, and there are no plans to change that.

    I’m not naive enough to say that all road fees are bad, or that we don’t have both congestion and road maintenance funding issues looming in our future. Some sort of VMT and vehicle-energy consumption taxes or fees are the obvious ways to implement funding for our future. While tolling has its role, it suffers from a lack of clarity to why we would want to do it.

    1. (1) I think this is exactly what it should be doing. Congestion pricing is specifically for reducing congestion, to which EV contribute just as much gas guzzlers. Gas guzzlers can be dis-incentivized via other means such as carbon taxing, gas taxes, or EV rebates or tax relief.

      as to (3) and (6) I think the most common implementation would be tolling people as they exit/enter in downtown Seattle, which would allow people to drive through Seattle without incurring any tolls. I know there are also tolling systems that are setup to toll cars based on the distance travelled, so cars would have to get “clocked in” from a freeway entrance in the ST region and then tolled if they enter Seattle. This would allow tolls to only be applied to drivers who reside within the Sound Transit borders.

      (5) could also be addressed by different tolls being applied to different exits, which could easily go as far north as the U-district IMO.

      1. @Cameron,

        Per number 1), most tolling nowadays is done electronically via registered RFID tags affixed to the vehicle. If so desired, it would be a relatively simple thing to give a discount to an EV everytime it got tolled.

        Enforcement would be via spot checking with the photo backup system. Get caught registering your F250 as an EV and you’d pay a fine of $500. Anyone not using the electronic system and still driving an EV would pay full rate.

        But I’m with you, congestion is congestion. EV’s should pay full boat.

    2. (3) Surely you need to charge for people passing through Seattle (on non highways?), that must be a significant contributor to the congestion.
      Otherwise how do you discourage people using surface streets instead of the tunnel? (amongst other things)

  11. yes, a cordon toll around the CBD is an option; is it authorized by the RCW? Another option: the state could toll all lanes of all limited access highways between Marysville and Tumwater. That would also limit diversion. all modes would benefit. just as the LIFT program helped with transit fares, the state could charge different rates for the transponders.

  12. And what about those of us who live downtown? We will soon be deprived of our 99 off ramp at Western making trips
    longer and slower. One can’t go everywhere by public transit.

    1. Yup, and the Senaca/Columbia ramps are gone, too. The tunnel was misrepresented, but it is what our leaders gave us. And those who live downtown should pay for the privilege of the scarce road capacity as much as anyone else using them.

      1. Yep. One of the stupidest things this state ever did. Lost in the cars versus transit argument was whether this actually would be good for cars. No, it won’t be. It will be terrible for all but a few. I argued against this monstrosity for years, but I will actually benefit from this. I live in northeast Seattle, and occasionally drive to West Seattle, so an empty SR 99 will be nice. But for the region — it will be really bad. Oh well, at least it was cheap — oh, wait, no it wasn’t.

      2. The tunnel exists to maintain SR99’s capacity as a regional facility. Alaskan Way is to become a higher capacity street in order to meet the needs of folks in Belltown, though certainly for trips to or from south of Dearborn. The State wasn’t going to pay for the non-highway option, and Seattle did not want a new Viaduct.

        The tunnel was the only option left.

        People will gladly pay the tolls to avoid the ever-worsening congestion on I-5. With variable tolling, congestion on Aurora can become a fairly predictable planning input.

      3. Sorry, “though certainly not with the same degree of ease as today for trips south of Dearborn”

    2. “And what about those of us who live downtown?”

      If you need to drive, you just pay the toll. If you live downtown, the number of times you really need a car should be small enough to make the tolls negligible compared to what you’re already spending on car payments and parking.

    3. Deborah, I’m really curious about how much transportation, let alone freedom and enjoyment, out of your car where you live right now? Tolls of not, don’t you think that from here on, you’ll be less and less dable to get out of the garage? Or lot?

      Wherever I’ve either lived or visited, it’s been years since I voluntarily took any car of mine Downtown in any major city. Expensive on fuel, mechanically hard on the car, and worst of all, a slow stressful drive I could never any way enjoy.

      Generally find a hotel right next to a transit station. Or leave the car in a garage next to one. Have read that in Europe, France I think, there are companies who run contract garages that not only keep the car, but also keep it maintained,

      With drivers that bring the car wherever the owner wants to meet it. Like first station on the transit system that is fast and enjoyable to drive out of.
      As I hope I’m making clear, I don’t like Government by Punishment.

      If I did, I’d require everybody to live downtown and drive a car for misdemeanors, and for felonies- somewhere near SR512 and SR7 around Puyallup. Mass murder: PM Rush hour only.

      So really would like your suggestions to what will be most enjoyable and comfortable for you….if you were setting policy.


  13. One cure for “congestion,” which I think should rightly be called be called “car-friendly immobility”, should be to wait until both the public and the business community decide that the sheer number of cars make buying, selling, and working impossible.

    By same theory, the longer we hold off, the greater the pressure for change. Same, incidentally, might hold for the suburbs- except because there’s more room, we could have twenty years more sprawl before we reach any effective containment.

    So for both, I think it might work better to let people see positive examples to imitate, rather than negative ones to fear and get mad at. So for certain parts of suburb and city, could we create a few temporarily transit-only square miles for some experiments to guide future efforts?

    Discussion of parking is still an open question. But since this is an experiment, we could create temporary park-and-rides so people could feel the benefits of “TAP”- Transit Assisted Parking-as part of the transition.

    Because I’m pretty sure we don’t yet have enough transit-oriented parking to take care of the number of people we need to bring in to make the experiment either workable or credible.


  14. Implementing a charge to enter to downtown area – whether we call it a Congestion Charge, or a Toll, or whatever – is a much better alternative than what the OneCityCenter folks are currently planning – which seems to be to reduce bus trips while imposing no limits on SOV trips

    Especially off-peak, hurts transit riders to redirect SR-520 buses through delay-prone Montlake with bridge openings and stadium events. That just encourages ever more SOV traffic.

    1. If people bring their cars it will create more downtown traffic and they’ll be stuck in it.

    2. I’m personally looking forward to the 520 service restructure because it’s going to finally result in evening/weekend buses across the lake running more often than once/twice per hour. The Montlake exit ramp really isn’t that much of a problem during the off-peak.

      1. I’d love that in the off-peak, but we need to do something about that ramp in the peak before restructuring buses then. The other week, I sat on that ramp about twenty minutes.

        Maybe flip things so the 542 runs frequent-all-day-every-day and the 545 is a peak overlay, and then do something similar with the 255?

      2. Evenings and most weekends it is less than 10 minutes between Montlake freeway station and 5th/Pine (Westlake) on the 255 and 545, in both directions. If you want to switch to light rail, it’s either same platform, or pretty easy to go down the stairs at Westlake.

        There is no way that diverting transit service across the Montlake Bridge will be an improvement for Eastside riders off-peak. The list of drawbacks is huge.

        The current travel time to 5th/Pine will barely get you to the Link platform at UW – and that’s if there is no congestion or long traffic lights or Montlake Bridge opening. Add Link wait time and travel time.

        Today I can walk from the Stewart/Denny stop to almost anywhere in SLU within 10 minutes. In the future, I have to switch to Link and then I’m at Westlake – a much longer walk to SLU or yet another transfer.

        Leaving downtown after dinner, drinks, theater… I know when my bus leaves and I’m on the Eastside in 15-20 minutes. With the transfer I’ll need to be on the Link platform 20 minutes before my bus leaves the UW area.

        There won’t be enough service hours saved to fund a meaningful increase in frequencies. The redirected buses are planned to travel through the U-District to a layover space. It will not be sufficient savings to have a meaningful frequency increase on 255 or 545.

        There are at least 15-20 days/year when there are Husky Stadium events (football, graduations) and HecEd events that gum up traffic thoroughly on the Montlake bridge – enough so that some of the northeast routes don’t serve Husky stadium at all. The 271 is sent onto I-5 to NE 45th St. There are 6-10 days/year when the Montlake bridge is closed for various reasons – Opening Day of Boating Season, various races, maintenance work. Metro’s practice has not been to send the 271 downtown and let you use Link, instead drives a long deviation to the U-District without going to UW stadium.

        I could go on. Even during peak times when the 255 has the 540 as an alternative, and the 545 has the 541 and 542 as alternatives, riders are voting with their feet that the transfer to Link is not an improvement – the 255 and 545 are often standing room while there are plenty of seats on the 540, 541 and 542. If the UW transfer offered benefits, people would shift their travel, especially given open seats. Instead they are showing that the direct service is more attractive.

        One City Center should prioritize moving people, not cars. That would mean allocating road space for buses, not removing the buses with no restrictions on cars.

      3. People ride routes that are frequent and reliable. The 540, as currently scheduled, is neither – it runs every 20-30 minutes for limited hours, and is scheduled with too little recovery time, and oftens begins its runs extremely late. This is not an inherent problem with the U-district – it’s because Sound Transit doesn’t schedule the route with enough recovery time to deal with rush hour traffic on the 520 bridge – the same rush hour traffic that the 255 deals with.

        The service hours to fund meaningful frequency improves from a restructure indeed does exist. See Metro’s options B and C ( for details.

        And, it’s also worth noting that doing nothing may force frequencies to be reduced further, as additional time gets added to the schedule of each run while the bus crawls down the downtown streets.

  15. Eventually, this has to happen, and driverless cars will force it to happen. Right now, the limited supply of parking, and the cost of parking, limits the number of cars that can enter the city center each day. But, if rides in driverless cars become too cheap, now, you’re back to a separate car for every worker trying to squeeze onto the downtown streets in the middle of rush hour. Even if people started carpooling, one new car on the roads for every 4 bus/train riders would still be plenty to cause gridlock.

    The only way to prevent this is the combination of the carrot and the stick. The carrot takes the form of bus lanes and Link tunnels to allow transit users to bypass whatever congestion the cars create. The stick, in the form of tolls, for those that insist on driving anyway.

  16. Greetings Mark,
    I own a 2004 Subaru and it lives in the underground parking garage of our condo building. I take the bus as much as I can. I’m 73 and my husband is 79.
    He’s learned to take the bus, too. I grew up in London in a car less family so know all about public transit.
    We use the car to go on trips to the north end of Vancouver Island, and errands around Seattle when it involves stuff we can’t carry. Yes, we use Uber, too.
    In London I think residents of the central area are exempt from the extra charge. That would be nice.

    1. I don’t think an exemption for local residents really makes sense. It would basically be a subsidy for those wealthy enough to afford a downtown parking space (those that don’t have their own cars would not be exempt when riding an Uber or car-sharing vehicle). If tolls result in some car-based errands of downtown residents getting shifted to off-peak hours (when tolls would, presumably, be cheaper), I would argue that the tolls would be having their intended effect.

    2. The exemption may have been to make the congestion charge acceptable enough to pass, or at least they thought it would be necessary.

      How does London’s congestion zone area compare to downtown Seattle? I thought it was a much larger ring. How does it compare do something I’m familiar with; e.g., the Circle Line or Zone 1: is it larger or smaller? If it’s a large ring, does that make it “more fair” because you can do more things completely inside it and don’t have to cross it as much as you might do if you live in downtown Seattle or the adjacent areas of East Seattle or Queen Anne? Another thing with Seattle is that central Seattle is an isthmus, so everyone has to pass through it even if they’re going from the south end to the north end. People traveling through get incensed at the thought of Seattle imposing tolls, when they don’t want to go to Seattle or don’t want to go downtown but the roads force them to go through it. Does that affect London similarly, that people may not want to go to central London but are forced to go through it and are thus subject to the toll?

      1. The congestion charge zone is relatively small (I was surprised when I just looked it up – but I’ve never driven in London)

        Its roughly Vauxhall to Euston and Paddington to Whitechapel, so covers the City of London and a bit more, but stops at the West End.

        Not sure how that compares to Seattle though

      2. Having lived in Seattle and London I may have perspective on this.

        The London congestion zone is smaller than “zone 1”, but not by a lot. That being said, it is set to expand hugely in 2021 with exemptions for low-emission vehicles. I believe this expansion is primarily aimed at reducing pollution rather than traffic congestion, as the pollution in London is truly horrible due in part to a large proportion of diesel vehicles.

        To be honest it’s difficult to compare the two cities. London streets are complete chaos and really doing anything with a car is a drag. Through-traffic is non-existent as there are loop highways that avoid the center.

        Parking in “downtown” is also non-existent and I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who drives to work after living there for 2 years.

        I would think that in Seattle congestion charging would be for the purpose of encouraging work commuters to use public transit. In London work commuters already use public transit and congestion charging is more aimed at reducing pollution since it applies lower rates to less-polluting vehicles.

        Barcelona might be a better comparison to Seattle because of it’s size and urban planning. Barcelona has highways going close to the center and most of the city is on a grid pattern with relatively sane and smooth traffic on city surface streets.

      3. In London, an exemption for people living in the area makes even less sense than it does in Seattle because parking there is so much scarcer and more expensive, and the public transit, so much more comprehensive. If you have enough money to afford an exorbitantly priced parking spot in the middle of central London, on top the exorbitantly high cost for actual living space there, you can afford to pay the congestion charge on the day’s you’re too lazy to ride the underground.

        That said, I also understand that the people with this kind money have outsized influence through outsized campaign donations. While exempting them is certainly better than having no congestion charge zone at all, it is important to understand that exempting residents of areas like that only serves to make the whole congestion pricing system more regressive. It’s basically saying that those who can afford their own private car and their own private parking space get to use the streets for free, while those that need to rent a shared vehicle (or ride Uber) have to pay.

    3. Hi,Deborah,

      I remember The Princess Marguerite, and wish she was still sailing. I think she carried cars- but it was a long time ago.

      Have also ridden the Victoria Clipper hydrofoil, but that was also more than 15 years back. What’s passenger transportation like up and down Vancouver Island?

      Am I right that if somebody dropped Downtown Seattle into London, it would take Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson a month to find it? Even if they borrow the Hound of the Baskervilles?

      I can see a completely transit-pedestrian-taxi-uber-bike area between the Waterfront and I-5, and from Jackson to at least Virginia. Where within five years,every private car in there would be de facto inconveniently parked soon as front tire rolled in, even with no restrictions.

      But will also have to be a few car-only lanes elsewhere. For plates that sort of resemble our ORCA cards?

      I’m also starting to see delivery services coming back, which could really help with everything from shopping to airport luggage. A van-ride for suitcases the size of trucks could really give LINK someplace to put passengers.

      But main reason I’m pretty sure Seattle and its transit systems will keep us happy to live here: Every time I get on a standing-load bus at rush hour, at least five young men or women offer me their seat.

      Considering what people this age have to borrow for college, the three of us owe it to them to use our scandalously unfair political power assure that in return for our travel “breaks”, we see to it that this next collapse, we have BANKERS’ prisons instead of the Charles Dickens kind.

      Meantime, with the break I get on my Reduced Regional transit pass, I’ll only be in some fifteen year old girl’s seat when the Medical Examiner puts me there under a sheet. At least under the new rules my final van-ride won’t keep me waiting very long.


  17. Congestion pricing of downtown streets and all that is one thing.

    Tolling the tunnel is another.

    For some decades, cities east of the Mississippi have had toll roads with free alternative routes. The turnpikes are very well used.

    The biggest congestion area for people trying to avoid the tunnel toll is probably going to be I-5 and areas of Fremont and Wallingford where people switch from Aurora to I-5. The Denny Disaster and Mercer Mess might get worse too as alternative routes.

    I-5 is congested through downtown because, as bad as it is, it is still faster than the downtown streets. As long as this remains the case that is where the diversion will happen, unless I-5 is included in the picture.

  18. It’s nice to reminisce. I remember paying a toll on the Evergreen Bridge, so deja vu to that.
    Yes, bring back something like the Princess Marguerite, the direct car ferry between Seattle and Victoria. It had white tablecloth dining, but took a very pleasant 4 hours to get there.
    Now we drive straight to Tswassen and it’s two hours on BC ferries to Nanaimo.
    North of Campbell River it’s only a very winding two lane road, takes two hours to drive to Pt. McNeill, our destination. Then another BC ferry to Alert Bay, final destination.
    My gripe with BC ferries is there is no senior rate. Only for BC residents. Wonder how that would go down here on our ferries if all older visitors had to pay full fare?
    Check out Alert Bay on line, it’s a wonderful place.



      In return for a permit for his business partner to add some vertical density at Colman Dock with a doorman in a Russian officer’s coat (used to be regulation worldwide), and also Ukraine, Vladimir might even paint our new car ferry it green and white for us.

      And maybe WSOT and SDOT will let us have at least one GP lane give up a couple Waterfront general traffic lanes at Colman Dock. Though that’ll probably be more savage battle than for Ukraine.

      Buy I think all three of us know two reasons why people our age don’t get anymore breaks than the younger people who’ll take care of us (or not) if we make it across the Canadian border with our lives.

      One, (Have a care laddie, a stereotype can get ye’ killed oop here!) Provincial and personal finances are in hands whose Highland owners’ (Brave Heart, right?) age-old ethnic spending habits leave them able and proud to pay for service rendered! But leave Canadian Health Care familiar with carpal tunnel from years of an over-tight grip on pocket change.

      However, since England just gave Scotland to Europe, every Scots political party- including the one in Canada-will soon have a militant Youth Wing like every party from Norway to Vladivostok. So if Social Media makes American kids imitate… after a lightning-fast alliance with the AARP, Fare will be Fair. Right?


  19. Some tolling strategies are one-direction. It could be more palatable and less disruptive if we tolled for vehicles headed inbound but not outbound in this situation.

    We could also pull that back to a broader area than Downtown — like the Ship Canal/520 on the north, Lake Washington on the east and Spokane St/I-90 on the south (although SE Seattle inbound tolling locations could be messy). However if we did that, we should conceptually commit to making a subway in the CD happen. While a closer-in inbound toll circle could seem better, the concept is really complicated by putting up a virtual wall in the middle of an urban street grid.

  20. I like how this article omits the fact that every city that has this in place also has a fully fledged rail transit network that connects almost every neighborhood and small town within 50 miles.

    Seems you would want to build that out first before building the stick part of this process to “punish” people for having to drive into downtown for whatever reason.

    1. Using the word “punish” suggests that you do not understand congestion pricing at all.

      The comprehensive rail network (that we support) doesn’t pencil out, we’re told, because of insufficient ridership — partly because roads are underpriced.

      Meanwhile, buses, which also exist, could quickly and easily go faster were there less congestion, more funding, and more political will, all of which would be true in the presence of congestion pricing.

      1. I guess if you think paying for your groceries or buying a movie ticket is ‘punishment’ then you can attach the same qualifier to congestion pricing. Even better, congestion pricing delivers all of the efficiencies of a market driven economy without a profit motive. The right wingers and libertarians are so free market until they’re not.

  21. >Some will argue that congestion pricing is regressive. It’s true that it doesn’t scale with income, but it’s important to keep in mind that most of the poorest people arriving downtown during the workday come by transit. Parking costs north of $300/month in downtown garages.

    I don’t doubt this, but do we have any data to back it up? The Commute Seattle survey of downtown workers, maybe? (I don’t work downtown, so I don’t know if it had questions about income). NYC had a very good dataset showing the commute mode splits for various income brackets into Manhattan and it was useful in addressing regressiveness concerns for a proposed congestion pricing system. I unfortunately can’t find it right now (I saw it a few months back on Twitter).

  22. We should start congestion pricing as a means to creating a future private car free downtown. And severely restricted commercial use.

    Pioneer square is an ideal candidate , with massive amounts of parking on the edge. But I don’t think we are there yet. We could use our extra money to accelerate that.

  23. Our transit system is nowhere near good enough to replace car traffic. It takes me 20 minutes to drive to downtown (International District) from Kirkland (carpool), but taking the bus increases my commute to between 1.5 to 2 hours (one way). The Park and Rides fill up hours before I need to be at work, and state law prohibits me from leaving my child at daycare more than 10 hours a day. It’s just not possible for me to take the bus without significant negative impact to my entire family. Plus, to top things off, a bus pass would cost me $90 a month, but the cost of gas is less than $50 a month (my employer offers free carpool parking). So, using transit would require me to: experience significant financial hardship, lose hours of time every day, find a new daycare near my work (more expensive and I need to carry an infant on the bus), and get to work hours before I need to be there.

    All to pay for a tunnel I will likely never see the inside of?

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