For months, SDOT watchers have been agonizing over the fate of One Center City’s program of bus and bike lanes, as well as the Center City Connector streetcar and its dedicated lanes. Mayor Durkan’s new proposal to toll the city center makes these petty squabbles by comparison.
Obviously, there’s a lot of process before anyone pays a toll. But if, somehow, the proposal survives and sets tolls as high as necessary to avoid congestion, that implies open streets downtown. That is way better for transit than fighting block-by-block for bus and BAT lanes.
The big exception here is bikes: backpedaling on ambitious bike lane plans plus faster traffic flow actually makes the status quo worse for the two-wheeled. That’s all the more reason to switch the emphasis of One Center City from bus lanes to bike safety.
However, in a bad sign for anything happening at all, on Sunday Danny Westneat started off the equity backlash, though he at least proposed constructive alternatives like allowing specific cars only on certain days. Ultimately, there’s a finite amount of road space and we will ration it somehow. Today, it’s by willingness to put up with traffic delays, and tough luck if you need to get there fast. Congestion charges sort by a combination of wealth and the value of someones’s time, and tough luck if you put a very low value on your time. A rotation scheme is equitable except for those with access to multiple cars, a perverse incentive if ever there was one. But the main cost is that there are days where you can’t drive downtown at all at any price in time and money.
Personally, I’m simply not moved by the equity argument. The downtown core is well-served by transit from nearly everywhere. Driving there is already expensive and difficult, so the extremely price-sensitive take the bus or train. The great mass of working class people that drive to do their jobs are getting paid (or forgoing paid work) to sit in traffic. It is worth it for them — or the people that pay them — to give them clear streets to be more productive. And finally, congestion pricing is revenue-positive, providing space to compensate the handful of disadvantaged people hurt by such a system (also, congestion may cost Metro $100m annually, even more money that could be plowed into increased service).
Technical merit is never a guarantee that a project will deploy, but if it does Mayor Durkan will have a transformative transportation legacy in downtown.